Don Quixote, Japanese Mobsters

Every time I sit down to watch a movie, I am reminded of how much Youtube and Tiktok have absolutely trashed my attention span. All the hard work I’d put in during college reading long winded classics and watching marathons of the likes of The Godfather put to waste. Now I can’t even follow half an hour of story without getting antsy, and that applies to both novels and film. Whatever happened to the kid from 2016 who had sat down for eight hours of Lav Diaz’s Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis at the Manila Cinematheque after it nabbed the Alfred Bauer Prize at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival.

Speaking of The Godfather, a serendipitous discovery in my Netflix recommendations led me to Kan Eguchi’s 2019 hit, The Fable. Junichi Okada stars as a legendary hitman known in the criminal underworld by his nickname, Fable. Cool and calculated, Fable never wastes a bullet. The film begins with an energetic opening sequence in which Fable takes out an entire private occasion at a teahouse, disposing of suited thugs and boss men alike without breaking a sweat. However, soon after, Fable is given his hardest task yet: spend one year living as an ordinary man without killing a single person.

A Family (2021) dir. Michihito Fujii

Such a task could have been easy for a pro like Fable: in one scene, he finds himself being accosted by street thugs, and in lieu of fighting back he choreographs a dance of fake defeat, using his quick wits and battle instincts towards an act that would satisfy his attackers enough to leave him be, without having to take too much damage himself. But elements of the underworld just won’t let him go that easily, and despite his best efforts he soon finds himself in the middle of a takeover plot commandeered by an up and coming underboss and his right hand man, who has his own score to settle with Fable. The result of all this is a wacky action thriller that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but delivers some steady pacing in a cold blooded storyline worthy of John Woo. That is, if John Woo had a baby with Edgar Wright.

Watching The Fable invariably ended into a marathon of contemporary Asian gangster films. Playing piece de resistance to the collection of truly dazzling titles in and out of Netflix (John Woo and Park Chan-wook must be elated to know their legacies are in great hands) is Michihito Fujii’s recent hit, A Family (2020). But speaking first of A Fable, I have since found out that Kan Eguchi recently put out a sequel, The Fable: A Hitman Who Doesn’t Kill, but I’ve put off watching it for now until I can do so with the girlfriend as we’ve both become great fans of this wacky, socially inept contract killer.

A Family (2021) dir. Michihito Fujii

Despite its two hour runtime, A Family is surprisingly taut (in my TikTok-fried brain, anything lasting beyond 90 minutes better make it worth my time). We are introduced to Kenji Yamamoto (Go Ayano), who finds himself being initiated into the Shibasaki-gumi yakuza group after saving its leader, Hiroshi Shibasaki (Hiroshi Tachi), at an altercation in a barbecue. We then follow Kenji’s life in the Yakuza, as a new age dawns over the country and the Yakuza are left to scramble for their continued relevance in a society that has all but rid of them.

This, if anything, is the highlight of Family’s contribution to the great body of Yakuza films. Fujii picks up where preceding films have left off, with the Yakuza representing something of a criminal equivalent of the Samurai of feudal times, what with their parroting of terms like honor and duty as central tenets of their daily lives, and then situates them in the crossroads of the early 2000’s, amid increased surveillance thanks to wider adoption and fast innovation of technologies, at a time of cancel culture, Twitter scandals, and Facebook livestreams.

A Family (2021) dir. Michihito Fujii

The story is told in three parts: the first part deals with Kenji’s initiation into the Yakuza. This is the Yakuza of Tokyo Drifter (1966, dir. Seijun Suzuki) and Sonatine (1993, dir. Takeshi Kitano): the Yakuza have the city by the neck, but they themselves aren’t so much criminals but honorable men made to live dishonorably in a broken society. They are the bastard sons of Samurai, dealing in shady street corners but keeping by a strict code of honor and dignity. The true job of a Yakuza, says one character in Family, is to pursue the path towards being real “gentlemen.” Kenji throws a suspicious glance at this pretension, but he nonetheless takes on the suit and tie, along with the burden that comes with it.

Where we next meet Kenji, he has become a valuable member of the Shibasaki-gumi, even coming into a sour rivalry with Hiroshi’s right hand man. But the siren call of the changing times have started. Hiroshi Shibasaki is no longer the ruthless boss he used to be, and his rule over the city is challenged by the up and coming Kyoko group, led by the more youthful, more violent Masatoshi Kato (Kosuke Toyohara).

A Family (2021) dir. Michihito Fujii

Meanwhile, Kenji finds himself falling in love with Yuka Kudo (Machiko Ono), a waitress at a club controlled by the Shibasaki. Even now, the Yakuza still carry an air of prestige: while walking along the beach, Yuka lets out her admiration for Kenji’s profession (“Are you a Yakuza? I never thought I’d meet the real thing!”). But as they look over the horizon at the coming morning, they know their relationship is not one that can flourish, at least not in Kenji’s world. The tides are coming in, and whether they’ll be at its crest, or left at the wayside, is a question that hangs over Kenji and his brothers at the Shibasaki-gumi.

A Family (2021) dir. Michihito Fujii

Finally, we meet Kenji fourteen years later. The police has taken down Yakuza operations, and their public reputation is no longer what it used to be. In this new world, they are nothing more than criminals, and former members of the Yakuza find themselves unwelcome to live in the outside world. While this great change was happening, Kenji was in prison, and now at the end of his sentence he wonders at the alien world into which he is being reintroduced. One of my favorite moments in the film has Kenji in the car ride from prison, looking over glittering skyscrapers, and a Don Quixote, apparently the big, shiny beacons of a modern world.

This is but one example of Fujii’s visual poetry to be found in Family. In all three parts, the furnace of an industrial plant at the heart of the city looms over every turning point in the story, the smoke belching from its metallic loins signaling the relentless march of modernity.

A Family (2021) dir. Michihito Fujii

The barbecue, where the serendipitous first encounter between Kenji and the Shibasaki-gumi first happens, also becomes a beacon of this ongoing metamorphosis. At the start, the barbecue is brightly lit, a feast of colors and cigarette smoke. Here, Kenji and his friends celebrate an act of aggression against Kato’s still growing Yakuza. In the second act, the barbecue, while still buzzing with activity, has taken on more sullen colors. Finally, when Kenji revisits the place upon his release from prison, there is only one other customer in the now mostly dead barbecue: one of Kenji’s brothers in the Shibasaki-gumi, now wanting nothing to do with the Yakuza and struggling to leave behind his criminal past. At the end of this scene there is only one person in the place: Kenji, now only waking up to the painful truth that their glory days are over.

Ultimately, Kenji and his brothers, though they may see themselves as the feared masters of their fate, remain only little beings at the mercy of time. Time, after all, recognizes no mob boss. It doesn’t settle disputes with knives or guns. It moves and it ebbs, and we are all left at the wayside.

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