Friday, June 27, 2008

REVIEW: Young Yakuza - Jean-Pierre Limosin (2007)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

One of the many entries into Japanese cinema is through genre: horror, period samurai films and of course the yakuza genre. While the popularity in Japan of “yakuza eiga” may have waned since it’s heyday in the 1960’s films exploring the violent underworld of these gangsters still loom large in the minds of Western moviegoers. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken to who have named Kitano’s “Sonatine”, Miike’s “Dead or Alive” or Fukasaku’s “Battles without Honour and Humanity” as not only the films that introduced them to Japanese cinema, but remain favorites to this day. Like geisha, Godzilla and sumo wrestlers the image of a tattooed gangster says “Japan” to Westerners in the same way that Mounties and Anne of Green Gables says “Canada” to the Japanese, but what is the reality behind this stereotypical image? What does it really mean to be a yakuza today? In a somewhat ironic turn the French director of the 1998 yakuza crime drama “Tokyo Eyes”, Jean-Pierre Limosin steps up to try and answer those questions in his 2007 documentary “Young Yakuza”.

In 2004 Limosin got a call from a Japanese translator friend who said she had someone visiting from Japan who wanted an opportunity to practice his French and get shown around Paris. Agreeing to play the tour guide Limosin was introduced to Kumagai, the head of a yakuza clan that ran the bayside Shinagawa ward in Tokyo. Kumagai got to practice his French, asking Limosin about cinema, particularly Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” and (excuse me for saying this) made Limosin an offer he couldn’t refuse: to make a film about the yakuza. Limosin agreed, but stipulated that he wanted to film the initiation and education of a new clan member, which is what he was allowed to do.

Naoki Watanabe’s life is going nowhere. At 20 years-old he’s got no job, little skills and he’s always getting into trouble. His mother’s at her wit’s end, so when a representative from the Kumagai-gumi clan comes to her home to convince her that a year’s apprenticeship with the yakuza will teach her son “good manners and perseverance” she sets Naoki up for an interview with Kumagai. The sales pitch isn’t far off actually, because what follows is a life of ritual, rigid protocol and self-denial that had me thinking more of a Zen monastery than the yakuza lifestyle put forward in the movies. Naoki is set to work cleaning the clan headquarters, being schooled on how to bow properly and serve Kumagai tea, cooking simple meals and even scrubbing the tattooed backs of senior yakuza at the public bath. Stripped of his identity (literally, as Naoki is forced to wear a blue clan jumpsuit when at their headquarters) Naoki quickly gets the structure that he so badly needed and learns that life as a yakuza is hardly glamorous.

Where are the gang wars? The prostitution? The extortion? That cinematic flair that fans of yakuza eiga are so used to? Kumagai, the only person in the film who oozes that cinematic gravitas and menace that we have come to equate with the Japanese mob answers that question himself. While he was the one to propose the idea of “Young Yakuza” to Limosin he was also the one who laid down the ground rules that he would only be able to film the day to day life of a yakuza member, while their “business” was off limits. “Their world of shadows,” as Kumagai described it would stay in the shadows, so that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching a documentary about a legitimate business rather than a criminal organization. It’s not until we see the yakuza taunt with police and scuffle with each other at a street festival do we get a taste of what lurks in the shadow world of the yakuza.

This festival is also the turning point of “Young Yakuza”. It’s after the festival that Naoki goes AWOL, leaving the clan and leaving Limosin without a film. The director does soldier on, shifting the focus onto the fall of Kumagai who, for an unspecified reason, is stripped of his power, but even Kumgai’s screen charisma can’t save the film after that.

While not a total success “Young Yakuza” is a fascinating, singular and brave documentary that any yakza eiga buff should add to their collection. I doubt we’ll see another look at the real yakuza like this any time soon.

No comments: