Directed by Rokuro Mochizuki, 1997, 110 mins.
Produced in 1997 as part of a wider cycle of dramas based in the shadowy world of gangland, A Yakuza In Love (aka Koi gokudo) matches up well in quality to Rokuro Mochizuki's other similar and contemporary works (Another Lonely Hitman and Onibi: The Fire Within) and yet adds another dimension: that of the rom-com, which isn't usually seen much in the yakuza-eiga genre, if ever ;-)
After a brief career starting out in the porn industry, the accepted training-ground of most of Japan's underground auteurs it would seem, Mochizuki is best known for his work in the yakuza-eiga genre, and most importantly, for rewriting the rules of the genre to include disparate elements that are little used, which elevates his work above the mire of the bog-standard gangland epic.
This is often because Mochizuki seems to take more interest in the gang members' life outside the "everyday" business of being a yakuza. Whilst he approaches the notion of organised crime and its attendant rules and respect as being imbued with its own strange, twisted notion of honour, he seeks to find sympathy for what would otherwise be very unsympathetic characters, whilst often underlining their crude, crass and unpleasant character traits. He approaches them as people first and foremost, thereby producing a richly multi-dimensional gamut of human dramas and tender comedies where lesser directors might simply focus on the single level bang-bang-blood-and-bullets plot.
A Yakuza In Love provides an excellent example of how this unconventional approach can be successful in the right hands: this movie is touching, stylish and funny, a bittersweet, lyrical, comical romance conducted on the knife-edge between life and death.
Whilst Mochizuki's grasp of comedy often runs to the misogynistic and histrionic which can grate on the nerves somewhat, it might seem oddly unsuitable: A Yakuza In Love at points resembles a French situationist farce but conducted within the testosterone-sodden, macho bullshit world of the Japanese gangland, the humour is so strange and out of place that it works, and really rather well at that ;-)
In amongst all the drama and comedy, however, there is a tense Osaka mob subplot, with both battles and narcotic use thrown in, which qualifies the movie as a "proper" yakuza feature, instead of just one whose main characters happen to be gangsters, and which is so well-interwoven that it doesn't clash at all with the emotional tenet of the rest of the film, even though it eventually develops into a startling, powerful tale of love and redemption.
There are also obvious references to his previous releases for the pink film industry, in particular several scenes which would not look out of place in a Nikkatsu romanporno, mingled with some truly tender and poetic moments, as well as some shockingly brutal ones. Mochizuki clearly wants to prove his mettle as a jack of all trades with this movie, and surprisingly everything works together as a whole with reasonably good continuity whilst still keeping the viewer on the back foot, much as he did with Another Lonely Hitman.
As for the acting, the performances are pretty good - the actress playing Yoko is quite outstanding, imbuing the role with dignity, strength and credibility, and the rest of the cast also deliver good performances which complement Mochizuki's excellently-crafted, rounded characters. However, there's almost no incidental music featured at all - a little slide guitar here and there, which is often a hallmark of a lower-budget feature, with a bit more during really climactic scenes, which gives a sad feeling of something rather lacking - I would personally have preferred a little more to give atmospherics at points where they're sorely needed.
"Could you be my Cinderella... just for today? You're my last angel that God gave me..."
A Yakuza in Love focuses its story on two rival gangs working for the Osaka syndicate: the first gang, the Okudo sect, is run by an oyabun named Ohkuma, and is quietly going under thanks in part to the incompetence of their main hitmen Kin and Hamaoka. The fact that it's a very small gang whose members all seem to be heroin addicts hasn't exactly helped matters.
Whilst on surveillance trying to carry out a hit on a top Tokyo gang boss, Kinichi notices a pretty young waitress, Shinohara Yoko, going to her workplace, and gets a bit of a crush on her. However, he is really supposed to be watching out for a gangster named Yamamoto – ordered by his boss Ohkuma to make a hit on the Tokyo syndicate to instigate gang war. Kinichi goes down to Yoko's café to try and start up an unlikely relationship.
However, on their first proper date, Kinichi slips some heroin into her drink to get her stoned in order to get her into bed. However, when she's sobered up, she realises he's a yakuza, thanks to the huge yakuza tattoo all over his back, which kind of ruins his cover story about being a second-hand car salesman ;-) He tells her not to be afraid of him and that if he messes up his next job, he will undoubtedly get whacked by his own gang. His apparent vulnerability, incompetence and needy nature moves her enough to sleep with him, despite her misgivings.
At the same time, on the other side of town, Hamaoka spots Yamamoto getting out of a car. He can't get hold of Kinichi for obvious reasons, so he decides to carry out the hit on his own. However, he completely messes it up and misses his target hopelessly.
Who will have to take the consequences of the failed hit attempt? Together Kinichi and Hamaoka head back to Osaka with the unwilling (and nigh on kidnapped) Yoko in tow. It would appear that, thanks to the messed-up hit, the Ohkuma gang is being forced to become associates of the Uzaki sect, which makes the boss mad because he considers them to be beneath him. So his first lieutenant, Matsui, who actually ordered the hit, is kicked out of the gang.
In addition to this, the oyabun is suddenly taken very ill, so whilst Kinichi is taking Yoko to the hospital after her cold turkey from the heroin he slipped her has made her sick, the other members of his gang are already there, and they all meet up in the waiting room. It turns out that Matsui has completely sold the gang out to the Uzaki sect, taking all the gang members with him save Kinichi and Hamaoka, in return for getting his own office and becoming the boss of his own gang, the Matsui sect.
The doctor's diagnosis is that Ohkuma-san is dying of cancer, and as his last wish, he begs Kinichi to bring him Uzaki's head - literally. Kin begs Yoko to help him look after his boss for a couple of days. However, it's not long before Ohkuma is dead and it's left to Kinichi to take over the helm of the miserable remnants of the gang.
Can Kin fulfil his late boss's last wish and take bloody revenge on the Uzaki gang? And can he achieve his dream of settling down with Yoko and building the Ohkuma gang back up again to its former glory?
In conclusion, you'd be hard pressed to find any director who clearly feels as much warmth towards his characters as Mochizuki does, which makes him a true master of the yakuza-eiga genre. His unconventional approach is innovative and almost entirely unpredictable. If you're looking for something which explores the extent of the human soul under the garish yakuza tattoos, Mochizuki is your man. A Yakuza In Love is a modern masterpiece - an involving, touching movie with a big heart and well worth your time and attention.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this
Entertainment Value: 7/10
Sex: 7/10, Rokuro Mochizuki sure knew his business when he worked in the pink industry ;-)
Cute Kids: 1 - and 0 scary ones, for a refreshing change
Scary Men In Bad Drag: 1, and that's really 1 too many ;-)
Cold Baths in Kiddies' Paddling Pools: good for the complexion, I hear
Incompetent Gangsters: more than you can shake a baseball bat at
Litres of Tomato Ketchup: a couple of full buckets' worth
Films in a Similar Style: Another Lonely Hitman is the good twin of A Yakuza In Love, Onibi the evil one. ;-)
*** Recommended! ***
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This film is being released by Artsmagic.
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.artsmagicdvd.com/ and http://www.artsmagic.co.uk - Artsmagic very kindly provided this movie to us for review, and are due to release the DVD later in the year
http://www.midnighteye.com/features/rokuro_mochizuki.shtml - interview with director Rokuro Mochizuki at Midnight Eye
http://imdb.com/title/tt0143346/ - page for the movie at IMDB, as of yet not exactly chock-full of information about the movie though