A Family Movie Review: Fujii and Ayano come together to create an intensely brilliant film
A superlative performance from Ayano, great direction by Fujii, and an unforgettable musical score, make this intense mafia film about violence, loyalty, honour and love a must-watch
Michihito Fujii’s Japanese crime drama is long and intense. The psychological intensity of many of its finest moments takes you back to The Godfather. It is safe to surmise that the latter made an impression on the director at some stage in his life.
It is 1999 and 19-year-old Kenji Yamamoto finds himself at the centre of a turf war between two opposing crime syndicate groups of the Yakuza. The recent loss of his father doesn’t stop the aimless teenager from seeking out trouble. The senior Yamamoto used to be a highly respected figure, and the surname is given due deference in most circles. A chance encounter at a local restaurant with an infamous crime boss by the name of Hiroshi Shibazaki is to change his life as he knows it. Kenji saves Shibazaki’s life when the latter and his entourage are ambushed by a rival group. The teenager receives an offer to join their business, but he flatly refuses. Days after saving Shibazaki’s life, Kenji finds himself in more strife as he steals drugs and money from a dealer on the street. Unbeknownst to him, the man he stole from works for the same group that barged into the restaurant the other night. Kenji splits the money with his two scooter-riding friends and disposes of the narcotics. The trio is picked up and tortured, but as soon as they realise the boy knows Shibazaki, they let them go. Kenji is taken in by Shibazaki and is formally initiated into the Shibazaki-gumi, Shouou-kai.
Director – Michihito Fujii
Cast – Go Ayano, Hiroshi Tachi, Machiko Ono, Yukiya Kitamura, Hayato Ichihara, Hayato Isomura
Streaming On – Netflix
Shibazaki is an old-fashioned Yakuza. He lives by the code of honour, loyalty and sacrifice. Under his leadership, the group (akin to a family with strong ties) is not permitted to deal in drugs and other vices. This is diametrically opposite to his younger and more hot-headed enemies. Cut to 2005, and the once-rebellious and directionless Kenji has transformed into one of the most trusted lieutenants of the Shibazaki-gumi. A personal favourite of Shibazaki, he is referred to fondly as Lil Ken. All is relatively well until a hit is ordered on his boss, and a close aide dies in the assassination attempt. Lil Ken is beside himself. Against the old man’s orders, he assassinates the rival group’s lieutenant, and is sent to prison.
The first half of the film is a bit predictable but effective, no doubt. Its pacing, dark imagery, and violence are all on point. The audience is provided with a deep dive into the Japanese underworld and the time-honoured traditions by which a prominent Yakuza family lives. But it is the second half that makes A Family truly memorable. The shift in the times is captured so melancholically by Fujii. After a prison sentence of fourteen years, Lil Ken is now thirty-nine. Though he is welcomed with open arms by the family, he soon finds out his father-figure boss is dying of cancer. The woman he once loved has vanished. The Yakuza is no longer what it used to be; so much so that members of the Shibazaki-gumi have resorted to making money from narcotics behind their boss’s back. This stage of the film is all about Kenji’s redemption. Shibazaki’s prophetic words to his protégé reverberate as he tells his ward to leave the Yakuza. “You still have time to do it over.” But that’s the thing about the mafia. It’s never ever a clean slate, even once you exit. Chances of leading a regular existence are next to nil. Old friends and lovers treat you as persona non grata, and honest work is hard to come by.
This melancholia Kenji feels - his best days snuffed out in prison - we feel too. And what accentuates the aforementioned mood is a supremely powerful classical score. The montages of the sea and the sky as he roams the streets for answers are quite breathtaking too. The most poignant part of the film involves a long voicemail Kenji sends to Yuka, doubling as a voiceover across scenes. The ‘what if’ and ‘all that might have been’ questions are so intense and sad that they brought a tear to my eye. What hits you the hardest is when he says, “I’m sorry for everything. It’s my fault all this happened. Even though it was brief, I was so happy to be able to live...even if it was just for a short time. I wanted to live a normal life. I wanted to work hard and become a proper human being.”
In Go Ayano’s Kenji Yamamoto we see the same human frailties as those of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone. Deeply violent, dangerous and ruthless he may be, but his need for redemption is even greater. And that’s why his antiheroic character is one worth investing in and rooting for, even.