Yakuza films tend to blur together, a hodgepodge of identical characters, raised voices, frequent gun battles, brutalized women, and very high body counts. Directors like Takeshi Kitano challenged this vision with films like Sonatine and Hanabi, which didn’t shy away from violence but presented the main character as less glamorous and more world-weary. In a climate of economic uncertainty and rising poverty rates, the yakuza lifestyle may seem less like a macho fantasy and more like one of a very limited range of survival options.
Ken and Kazu takes yakuza world-weariness to new levels, depicting two young punks who have little love for what they do, just the sense that this is the only avenue for success that will ever be open to them. The titular men (Shinsuke Kato as Ken, Katsuya Maiguma as Kazu) are low-level drug dealers working under the cover of a miserable-looking auto shop. Their main job is to rough up rival criminals who wander into their boss’s territory. There’s a bit of a Ray Liotta / Joe Pesci vibe to their relationship—Kazu has a hair trigger temper, a permanently squinty expression, and a thuggish swagger, while Ken is subdued and trying to distance himself from yakuza life so that he can enjoy a more normal existence with his pregnant girlfriend (Shuna Iijima). Things go south when Kazu insists that Ken help him earn a bit of extra cash by selling cheaper drugs on the side—Kazu needs a big score in order to put his abusive mother into a mental health facility.
The film isn’t awash in new ideas, but it does manage to present a version of the yakuza story that’s much more in tune with contemporary Japan. First-time feature director Hiroshi Shoji shot in his home town of Ichikawa, a city that typifies the bleak, run-down look of Tokyo’s economically depressed suburbs. Ken and Kazu wander through empty streets and linger in their auto shop, a claustrophobic jumble of grey metal that seems to close in tighter around them with every shot. There are no scenes of bright neon, no clubs full of girls, just a grueling, day-to-day grind.
Veteran theater and short film actors Shinsuke Kato and Katsuya Maiguma bring a raw, refreshingly unperformative quality to Ken and Kazu. I wasn’t really aware of just how dramatic the transformation had been until the two actors emerged for a post-screening Q&A. On screen, they inhabit their down-and-out criminal characters completely—in person, they’re congenial and look more like fashion models. Hiroshi Shoji noted that he fine-tuned the characters after the actors had been chosen, spending three weeks rehearsing and re-shaping certain scenes.
The rest of the cast are also given plenty of opportunities to shine. As yakuza boss Todo, Haruki Takano manages to be terrifying by never raising his voice, maintaining a constant smile and ready laugh that unnerves much more than violent rages would. Sadly, Shuna Iijima’s girlfriend character is relegated to a few scenes of outrage over Ken’s inability to leave the yakuza lifestyle behind. Writer-directors: flesh out your female characters, please. If you don’t know how, ask for help.
The film is at its best when it focuses on the complex nature of Ken and Kazu’s relationship. We never find out exactly how they met, or why they can’t seem to separate from one another. Kato described them as being “like brothers, in the sense that there’s no reason for them to be together, but they are. They complement each other, and one can’t begin or continue anything without the presence of the other.”
Shoji also makes great use of silence in a genre that’s more known for noise. In scenes where characters could have yelled at each other, sometimes they simply stare. In their interactions with their boss, Ken and Kazu know they’re walking a dangerously fine line, and the actors do a wonderful job of simultaneously pretending to be calm and revealing hints of fear.
What really makes Ken and Kazu work is that we come to care deeply about these characters. This isn’t the case for me with most classic yakuza films, where it’s hard to mourn the deaths of men who seem to glory in murder and rape. Ken is naturally the more sympathetic one—the reasonable guy who gets pulled back in just as he’s about to get out. But over time we also begin to feel for Kazu, whose violent outbursts and arrogant demeanor seem to be hiding a lifetime of pain and abuse. When violence comes for them, there’s no shouting, no hail of quick-edited gunfire, no superhuman feats, just a sense of grim resolve. We can see that their journey isn’t going to end well, and that they’re bad for each other, but we wish, however futilely, that things would turn out differently.
Ken and Kazu is currently playing at Eurospace in Shibuya.