Running time: 92 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Ryuji Hanashiro (Shoji Kaneko) is at a crossroads. He's enjoyed both infamy and untold wealth as a yakuza for the Santokai Gang, but lately Ryuji has grown tired of the money, the gambling and the women. It isn't just these transitory perks that have Ryuji questioning his path in life though. It's the fact that no matter how much cash he has or which woman ends up in his bed Ryuji will always be faced with death, death at any moment from a rival gangster or an untrustworthy friend. Not even having his brother Hiroshi (Koji Kita) and his faithful compatriot Nao (Kinzoh Sakura) at his side can distract him from death's long shadow. Besides, the life of a yakuza is keeping Ryuji from the two things he loves the most -- his little daughter Aya and his wife Mariko (Eiko Nagashima). It was the bad boy flare that Ryuji possessed as a yakuza that drew Mariko to him in the first place, but marrying Ryuji was something she did against her family's wishes. Now Ryuji lives without his family, Mariko having taken their daughter down to Kyushu as she petitions Ryuji for a divorce. Maybe, just maybe, Ryuji can do what his yakuza mentor did years before -- leave the gangster life for good and go straight; but going straight may be the most difficult thing that Ryuji has ever done.
This is the basic plot of Toru Kawashima's 1983 debut film "Ryuji", but to call this a basic or typical yakuza film would be doing it a huge injustice. "Ryuji" in many ways sits somewhere between the two historically established poles of yakuza films: the ninkyo eiga, or "chivalry" films, that depicted yakuza as being closer to Robin Hoods that street hoods, and the jitsuroku eiga, or "true document" films epitomized by Kinji Fukasaku's "Battles Without Honor and Humanity" series. These films showed yakuza and sociopathic criminals who indeed lived by a code, but one dedicated to violence and power mongering. Toru Kawashima's film "Ryuji" is neither of these, or both. Kawashima and lead actor Shoji Kaneko, who actually wrote the script for "Ryuji", take us behind the scenes of the yakuza in a way that totally lacks formula. We follow Ryuji as he collects protection money, oversees illegal gambling dens, enjoys a few dalliances with his mistress and so on. For nearly the first 40 minutes of "Ryuji" there is no discernible plot whatsoever. Kawashima and Kaneko are simply introducing us to Ryuju and his world, one that is marked by loyalty to the gang, loyal to its code of behaviour and loyal to the friendships within its organization. It's also a world where power, strength and violence rule, so that anyone who steps out of line is looking at receiving a brutal beating or worse. Ryuji and his brother Hiroshi and their friend Nao aren't bad men, nor are they good men. They are yakuza, and that name comes with very complicated baggage, but Kawashima and Kaneko for the most part do a fantastic job giving us entry into this underground world.
I say for the most part, because besides its truly admirable breaking of formula and dramatic realism "Ryuji" is not a film without some problems. The aforementioned slow build before Ryuji finally comes to terms with his desire to leave the yakuza life may leave many hungry for gangster movie formulas to head for the theatre door or grab the remote control. Once the plot kicks in and we see Ryuji make a noble attempt at "square" life "Ryuji" really comes alive... but how many will make it to this point in the film is questionable. Also, the complexity of Ryuji's character is both fascinating and off-putting at the same time. The truth is that we never really get to like Ryuji, even when he is settled into familial bliss with Mariko and Aya. His smile is never far from a sneer, and his frequent bursts of anger leave us, as well as Mariko, shaken. Then again, we have to ask ourselves, is Ryuji really meant to be likable at all? Like the formidable screen presence of "charisma actor" Yusaku Matsuda or the deadpan psychopaths of Takeshi Kitano's feature films, Ryuji is a character that isn't really sympathized with, but rather experienced, an anti-hero that makes us quietly cheer to ourselves for bucking society's norms, but one who also makes us cringe for the same reason.
Regardless of its flaws I can only categorize "Ryuji" as a success, and that's for one admirable reason. Yes, Kawashima's film breaks with formula, but by doing so he made the kind of film that needs to be seen more internationally. Like films such as Ryuichi Hiroki's "Vibrator", Ryosuke Hashiguchi's "All Around Us", Hirokazu Koreeda's "Nobody Knows" and Gen Takaahshi's "Confessions of a Dog", "Ryuji" takes us into Japan that few outsiders will ever see. This is not a cinematic world tailored to otaku or those hungry for the 21st-century exoticism of Japan. "Ryuji", like the other films mentioned above, is an example of a Japanese film-maker being utterly honest (sometimes uncomfortably so) with his Japanese audience. The sights, sounds and scenes are ones that will resonate with native viewers. It's through this honesty, though, that some basic human truths are touched upon; very much like the films of Ozu which Shochiku exes felt were "too Japanese" for foreigners to appreciate. It's this that makes "Ryuji" more that just a yakuza film. Ultimately it shows us the dilemma of someone who has decided to live outside of the accepted system, and the struggles (moral, financial and familial) and loneliness that arise. Very compelling stuff, and the reason why "Ryuji" should be discovered by more than just Japanese movie audiences.