TJFF Review: Yakuza Film 'A Family' Shows the Fragility of a Gangster's Paradise Directed by Michihito Fujii

Starring Go Ayano, Hiroshi Tachi, Machiko Ono, Yukiya Kitamura, Hayato Ichihara
TJFF Review: Yakuza Film 'A Family' Shows the Fragility of a Gangster's Paradise Directed by Michihito Fujii
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The exploits of an organized crime syndicate can be incredibly entertaining from an action perspective, but it's the family drama and humanity behind the gangster that's often the most compelling story. The yakuza have long been fodder in Japanese cinema exploring the concepts of duty, honour and loyalty. A particular ground breaking five-part epic, Battles Without Honor and Humanity, was released in the '70s and challenged these traditional ideas, reframing the yakuza as self-serving thugs. Writer and director Michihito Fujii's latest film, A Family, is a return to the traditional yakuza film but with a modern twist.

The film is a character study following Kenji Yamamoto (Go Ayano), a yellow-haired punk whose life is beginning to spiral downward following the death of his father. Yamamoto catches the attention of yakuza boss Hiroshi Shibasaki (the always incomparable Hiroshi Tachi) and reluctantly becomes involved in the Shibasaki-gumi gang. As the years go by, Yamamoto rises through the ranks and is taken under the wing of Shibasaki himself. Yamamoto continues to take care of those close to him and falls in love with Yuka Kudo (Machiko Ono), a university student who works as a club hostess in the evenings.

There are some cool action scenes in A Family (including an awesome continuous shot of an assassination attempt on Shibasaki), but they are not the highlight of this movie. Instead, the most striking part of A Family is in the back half, when Yamamoto leaves prison after serving a 14-year sentence. After nearly a decade and a half, Japan is a very different country — in particular, Japanese attitudes towards the yakuza have markedly changed. Yamamoto must now navigate re-integrating into society with the mark of yakuza tailing him, which prevents him from getting a job, housing, and even a cell phone.

The classic yakuza films didn't typically seek understanding from audiences — while they may be guilty of glamourizing (even romanticizing) the yakuza, they usually came from the perspective that this way of life was not one to follow. A Family however, paints Yamamoto sympathetically towards the end of the film. The discrimination he faces for his yakuza past, the diminished numbers of the Shibasaki-gumi, and the dark sadness surrounding his once powerful friends and colleagues all generate compassion.

Whether this pivot is correct (or responsible) is up for debate, but it is indicative of the desire of audiences to see, and filmmakers to create, complex heroes and anti-heroes who are neither good nor bad. And Fujii does a great job of building Yamamoto as a character of greys, with Ayano playing this nuance wonderfully.

Fujii also does an exceptional job of world-building, showing Japan in 1999 all the way to 2019 — emphasizing the changes in technology, fashion and the habits of a younger generation, but still presenting the commonalities that connect to the past to the present. And to put a cherry on top, Taro Iwashiro's striking score brings out the moodiness of Fujii's set pieces and overall tone.

A Family is a great yakuza drama whose themes of mortality and sacrifice may bring Martin Scorsese's The Irishman to mind (albeit with a much shorter runtime). It's a captivating examination of the rise and fall of those in power and a commentary on the tides of social change and their ramifications. In the end, the characters are left wondering if it was all worth it. And while there's no actual answer, it can be firmly declared that watching A Family is well worth your time.

The 2021 Toronto Japanese Film Festival runs online from June 5 to 27.