When you learn someone has died, suddenly everything they have ever done becomes tragic. No matter how old they were, this fact remains. Ryuji is a film which is always going to be overshadowed by the fact that its leading actor and screenwriter sadly passed away at the extremely young age of 33 from a terminal illness only days after the film’s release. Well, in actuality, the film was only “released” in a very limited sense, perhaps no one really had the heart to go on with it. However, it left its mark on all who saw it and eventually became a cult hit and influential classic on VHS. On paper, its tale is conventional – an existential yakuza drama about a man torn between conflicting desires and his own nature but on film, it’s something else.
In fact, the film takes its time about setting its scene as Ryuji goes about his regular yakuza business of beatings and whoring but eventually things come to a crisis as he becomes a father and winds up in prison. His dutiful wife pulls some strings to get him out. However, when released, she explains that she only got the money from her father for a divorce as he wasn’t going to bail out a yakuza. After kicking up a fuss (literally) Ryuji realises his wife is just too good for a yakuza’s moll, so he sends her and their daughter back to his father-in-law. The fact is, Ryuji misses them. He’s tired. Of the life, of the violence, of the threat. He’s ready to try something more ordinary if it means he can go back to his wife and his child. Living honestly is hard too, though. Physically exhausting, and much less financially comfortable. Things are going well, for a time, before a familiar face from the past appears and the ghost of the old Ryuji begins to rise up again.
In many ways, Ryuji is caught in a confused cycle of frustration. He’s a violent man, a yakuza, but one who’s becoming bored with the constant threat and violence inherent in his world. He misses his wife and daughter but he doesn’t know of a path that leads back to them. Eventually he starts walking, unsure of where he’s headed and once he’s home he feels at peace, at last. However, such peace is not meant to last, the past will not let you rest. Old friends turn up one after the other, your decision to help them or not will carry more weight than you first realise. After these cracks appear, the old Ryuji, filled with rage and violence, bubbles to the surface. In the end, you can’t evade your nature, you’re either one thing or something else and however much you long to be the other thing, it can’t be done.
Shoji Kaneko was a talented stage actor who was looking for a cinematic epitaph. He wrote the script, played the leading role and brought the production together. He temporarily joined a real gang to learn just what it’s like to be a yakuza and brought some of his existential despair to his on screen persona. Ryuji is a hard man and a bruiser yet often tender with his wife and cute little girl (played by Kaneko’s real life daughter in another moment of filmic symmetry). He has to decide which side of himself is the one he values most and the film’s final scene is one of the most heartbreakingly moving in all of cinema. The sound disappears entirely, sentiment is conveyed by look alone and a man makes an irrevocable decision that is instantly understood even the absence of words.
If it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all. There is actually very little death in Ryuji considering it’s a yakuza picture (if an unconventional one) but the spectre of endings is hovering all around. Knowing what it’s impossible not to know, it’s hard not to read that ever present threat of eclipse into every scene. Ryuji’s decision is a permanent one, taken once it defines everything. Kaneko was also a father with a young daughter facing the end of his life, also weak but tender. Graceful yet robust, Ryuji’s story is one of a man who couldn’t reconcile the two sides of himself into something whole and so sacrificed the things he wanted most. Beautifully made and perfectly realised, Ryuji is a film that should have been more widely appreciated and now, perhaps, will finally be accorded the respect it deserves.