Ask Judge Geoffrey Miller about those fingers he's missing, and he'll tell you a good story about his time in the yakuza.
"You're the last angel I'll ever see in my life"—Kinichi, to Yoko
If you're big on truth in advertising, A Yakuza in Love will please you; it's exactly what it says it is. Machismo-laden yakuza flicks rarely deal with romance, so it's a fresh twist on the genre. Director Rokuro Mochizuki has a knack for creating vivid imagery, and the strong cast puts in inspired performances. However, the film is dragged down by a lack of direction, despite its other strengths.
Facts of the Case
While on a mission to rub out a rival gang's boss, Kinichi Tasaka (Eiji Okada), a yakuza henchman, meets Yoko Shinohara (Yuna Natsuo), a mousy, timid waitress working at a nearby café. He convinces her to go out on a date with him, and they're soon an inseparable (though dysfunctional) couple. After internal rivalry tears Kinichi's gang apart, he finds himself selling drugs back in his old stomping grounds. Yoko stays loyal to him through the rough times, but their own demons threaten to tear them apart.
To understand director Rokuro Mochizuki, and his unorthodox career path, is to understand the development of modern Japanese cinema itself. Like many Japanese directors of his generation, he started out working on "pink eiga" movies, essentially feature-length, plot-heavy pornos that, because of strict Japanese censorship laws, featured relatively little explicit content compared to Western pornography. The maverick directors of pink eiga created far more than just simple skin flicks, and their work eventually earned critical respect. The genre offered two things that enticed budding auteurs: a way to easily break into the industry and learn their craft on the job, and almost complete artistic freedom.
After spending most of the '80s working in pink eiga, Mochizuki made a move to the mainstream. His focus since has been on yakuza films, which experienced something of a revival in the '90s. As with other directors who have recently followed a similar path (Takashi Miike, "Beat" Takeshi), he's aimed to bring a fresh style to a genre that's usually burdened with generic, cookie-cutter plots. On the surface, A Yakuza in Love resembles Seijun Suzuki's Branded To Kill, another film that brazenly toys with yakuza conventions. The two films share a pivotal plot point (an assassination gone wrong) and an obsessive, erotically charged romance. But where Suzuki created a psychedelic free-jazz noir, Mochizuki is intent on presenting a gritty realism that doesn't glorify the mobster lifestyle.
Kinichi first spies Yoko through a pair of binoculars peering out of a seedy apartment window. To say that the courtship that follows is unique would be an understatement. When he introduces himself to her at the café while she's waitressing, he's attracted to her kindness, even though he makes fun of her unfashionable shoes. After finally convincing her to go out to dinner with him, Kinichi essentially date rapes her, drugging her drink so he can get in her pants. After the effects of the drug leave her sick, he practically kidnaps her and heads back to the hospital nearby his gang's headquarters, with his yakuza "brother," Hamaoka (Shunsuke Matsuoka), along for the ride.
When they get to the hospital, Kinichi finds his gang's boss is there as well, suffering from terminal cancer. Even worse, a defection is destroying the gang, which is already struggling as it is. In what's surely one of the most unorthodox takes on the "meet the parents" situation ever committed to film, Yoko (now feeling better after a few days in the hospital) takes care of the ailing boss (Kinichi's "father," in yakuza terms), who loves PlayStation and taking drugs. His last wish before dying? Kill Uzaki, the boss who's trying to break up their gang. When Kinichi botches the hit, he's forced to go on the run with Yoko.
The remainder of the film is set in a rundown slum, where Kinichi, Yoko, and Hamaoka live with an old friend of Kinichi's. Kinichi, now watching his back for imminent revenge from Uzaki's gang, starts selling shabu (meth); Yoko and Hamaoka get sucked into the drug dealing business too. But before long, Kinichi and Yoko are both hooked on shabu themselves. With drugs chipping away at their sanity and hitmen on their trail, their world slowly unravels.
There are plenty of memorable scenes in A Yakuza In Love—Kinichi and Yoko's tumultuous first night together, Kinichi sneaking into a club as a dancer (in drag) to assassinate Uzaki, Yoko struggling to find a vein as she shoots up shabu—yet the film never quite congeals into a cohesive whole. Like a child with ADD, it jumps from a bizarro world rom-com, to a darkly comic send-up of the yakuza, to a harrowing drug addiction drama (and a few other genres along the way for good measure). To his credit, Mochizuki handles every style he attempts with accomplished flair, but the patchwork result comes off more like a clip reel than an actual, finished movie.
Even amidst this schizophrenic hodgepodge, there are strong, memorable characters. Kinichi, initially a caricature of a macho yakuza thug, reveals a layered complexity throughout the film. It's no surprise that a rough childhood led him to become a mobster, but the way Eiji Okada opens up the vulnerability under Kinichi's tough shell is oddly affecting. Yoko makes a remarkable transformation from a girl so quiet she's almost invisible to Kinichi's willing partner in crime, something actress Yuna Natsuo pulls off marvelously. She might have been forced to join Kinichi against her will initially, but she doesn't play the victim, relishing the excitement of the situation instead. The relationship between Kinichi and Yoko is the only thing that connects the disparate sequences of the film together, providing a much-needed emotional link.
There are a handful of bonuses on the disc: a rambling interview with Rokuro Mochizuki, an interview with Japanese film expert Tom Mes, and another segment on Mochizuki's relationship with yakuza films that's mostly comprised of clips from the Tom Mes interview. Artsmagic provides a quality widescreen anamorphic transfer, the original Japanese audio track in both Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1, and well-written subtitles.
I must confess that this is the first of Mochizuki's films I've seen. (In my defense, his stuff has only recently started to trickle onto DVD.) Because of that, it's difficult for me to assess where A Yakuza in Love (which, according to Tom Mes, is the final entry in a loose thematic trilogy) stands in his oeuvre. There's no doubt that he has talent, but whether or not the movie represents a misstep from a director expanding his horizons or a work indicative of an artist that hasn't yet been able to fulfill his vision is unclear. Despite all of its frustrating flaws, the exhilarating rush of the movie's unpredictability is enough to warrant a look for the curious. There's a good movie hiding somewhere in here; you just need to squint to see it.
Hung jury! The defendant is free to go for now, pending a future retrial.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with director Rokuro Mochizuki
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