Saturday, March 19, 2011

Save the Yakuza: Ryuji

Some things are worth preserving, like “sin, sex & violence.” Among the many treasures Japanese culture bestowed upon the world is the Yakuza film, a distinctly arty, existential variant of their western gangster movie counterparts. The Japan Society was well into their Yakuza retrospective, Hardest Men in Town: Yakuza Chronicles of Sin, Sex & Violence, when Japan was rocked by the earthquake and tsunami. In response, the Society has become a point organization for New York relief efforts and will donate fifty percent of all ticket sales to the cause through June. This includes Yakuza series, which features many American premieres, like last night’s screening of Ryuji.

In some respects, Ryuji is too appropriate for the times, given the shadow of death that looms over the picture. Though directed by Tôru Kawashima, most consider Ryuji to be Shôji Kaneko’s film. Written by the stage actor to serve as his breakout vehicle, Kaneko would die of cancer shortly after filming wrapped. Protagonist Ryuji Hanashiro is not exactly a stranger to violence and death either.

Hanashiro is a hard-bitten Yakuza foot soldier, living fast and hard with little future ahead of him. Somehow though, he gets involved with a good woman, Mariko, who bears him a daughter, Aya. Despite his dodgy entanglements and mercurial nature, Hanashiro agrees to go straight for the sake of his family. For a while, he works hard as a deliveryman for a liquor distributor (a business that sounds like it would be thoroughly mobbed-up), earning in a month what he used to blow on vice in an evening. Mariko took the man out of the Yakuza, but taking the Yakuza out of the man is a different proposition.

A sleeper-cult favorite in Japan after its initial 1983 release, Ryuji is an odd combination of styles, suggesting the cinematic vocabulary of the New Wave, but with an uber-80’s synth-heavy soundtrack (way past cheesy to our contemporary ears). It might sound like a mish-mash, but it works quite well, thanks to the stone cold integrity of Kaneko’s performance on the one hand and the endearing humanity of his real life wife Eiko Nagashima and daughter Momo on the other.

Sort of like a Japanese version of an early Abel Ferrara gangster movie, Ryuji has a gritty intimacy that is quite effective. Of course, the film takes on further poignancy through the contextual information audience members carry in with them. Seeing the soon-to-be deceased Kaneko in scenes with his young daughter is obviously quite heavy. Yet, the simple background shots of an elderly croquet league speak volumes of the sort of civil society Japan is and how important it is too preserve that way of life.

The Yakuza series concludes tomorrow with two screenings that are recommended unseen, simply on general principle. The Japan Society deserves credit for stepping up to help fill a leadership void that starts right at the top with the current occupant in the White House. Sadly, the people of Japan, a close friend and fellow democracy, must be rooting for Kansas and Ohio State to lose quickly, because with his bracket busted, Obama might finally turn his attention to international affairs. At least, we can help as individual citizens. To support the Japan Society’s efforts go here.