Bad City (バッド・シティ, Kensuke Sonomura, 2022)

V-Cinema legend Hitoshi Ozawa returns in a tale of big city corruption helmed by Hydra’s Kensuke Sonomura. Scripted by Ozawa himself and apparently created in part as a celebration of his 60th birthday, Bad City (バッド・シティ) is a clear homage to the classic yakuza dramas of the early ’90s while boasting some of the best action choreography in recent Japanese cinema performed by the likes of Tak Sakaguchi along with Ozawa himself who performs all of his own stunts. 

According to dodgy CEO Gojo (Lily Franky) who has just inexplicably been acquitted of extortion and colluding with the yakuza, Kaiko City is riddled with crime and violence which is why he’s announcing his candidacy for mayor. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a mysterious assassin (Tak Sakaguchi) is cutting swathes through the Sakurada gang who dominate the city’s western district which Gojo has earmarked for a redevelopment project he claims will improve the lives of citizens but is in reality just an excuse to build a massive casino complex intended to enrich himself and his company. The previous mayor had won a landslide victory thanks to his opposition to the redevelopment plan which enjoys little support from the local population but Gojo isn’t exactly interested in winning hearts and minds in the community. 

Really just another gangster himself, Gojo’s machinations are also destabilising the existing underworld equilibrium in seducing treacherous minions from other gangs including vicious Korean gangster Kim Seung-gi whose loyalty to ageing gang boss Madam Kim is clearly waning. Then again, an enemy’s enemy is a friend allowing unexpected alliances to emerge between previously warring factions especially given that the sudden offing of a high status gang boss is frowned upon in the gangster play book. 

With police and judicial collusion the only possible explanation for Gojo’s miraculous escape from justice, an earnest prosecutor sets up a secret task force under the command of Public Security agent Koizumi (Mitsu Dan) and led by veteran officer Torada (Hitoshi Ozawa) who is currently in prison awaiting trial on suspicion of offing Mrs Kim’s only son, Tae-gyun. Torada is an unreconstructed violent cop operating under the philosophy that if you beat up a good guy that’s violence but if he’s bad then it’s justice. He has perhaps learned to see the world as morally grey, not believing himself to be necessarily on the side of right so much as resisting the forces of darkness by doing whatever it takes to survive in this city which is indeed already quite corrupt. Partnered up with two veterans and a junior female officer from violent crimes who were assigned to investigate the Sakurada boss’ murder, the gang do their best to trap Gojo legally by uncovering incontrovertible evidence of his dodgy dealings they can use to nail him in court, or failing that the court of public opinion, that cannot be swept aside by his friends in high places. 

Sonomura opens as he means to go on with a series of bloody assassinations culminating the massacre of the Sakurada gang in a bathhouse, while building towards the final mass confrontation in which Ozawa and his team face off against hordes of foot soldiers trying to fight their way towards a confrontation with Kim Seung-gi. Dynamically choreographed, the action sequences are surprisingly bloody and heavy on knife action but crucially also displaying a high level of characterisation and dramatic sensibility as the earnest cops square off against amoral gangsters willing even to sacrifice their own. 

Though there might be something uncomfortable in setting up the major villain as a rogue Korean gangster, the film paints his defection in part as a reaction to Mrs Kim’s initial loathing of the Japanese while in the end allowing a kind of cross-cultural solidarity to emerge as the Sakurada gang become accidental allies and Mrs Kim receives a lost letter from her son that allows her to change her way of thinking while helping to take down the destabilising force of Gojo, restoring a kind of order at least to the streets of Bad City Kaiko. Ozawa may be an equally dangerous extra-judicial force, but at least for the moment he’s standing in the light where everyone can see him taking out the trash and leaving those like Gojo no quarter in an admittedly violent place.

Bad City screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Baby Assassins (ベイビーわるきゅーれ, Yugo Sakamoto, 2021)

“Drugs and pimping are outdated. We’re in the age of “moe”” according to a surprisingly progressive gang boss who takes his son to task for his sexism and insists that even the yakuza has a duty to create a comfortable working environment for women. Yugo Sakamoto’s anarchic deadpan action comedy Baby Assassins (ベイビーわるきゅーれ, Baby Valkyrie) is at heart a slice of life slacker drama about two young women reluctantly trying to make their way towards adulthood only the two young women are also elite assassins recently graduated from high school having been raised as coldblooded killers. 

For whatever reason it’s decided that the shy and socially awkward Mahiro (Saori Izawa) and the manic extrovert Chisato (Akari Takaishi) should become roommates occupying a furnished apartment paid for by their handler while they cover their other expenses through part-time jobs that will help them figure out how to live as “members of society”. The problems they face are perhaps those faced by many in the contemporary era just trying to make it through an unfulfilling side gig without killing anyone only for them the stakes are higher as Chisato discovers on braining a customer and strangling a moody coworker without realising she’s not just fantasising. Mahiro meanwhile finds herself entering a daydream in which she offs the combini manger interviewing her after his boring rant about kids today who think they can earn a living playing video games only to realise the store is staffed by yakuza-esque minions determined to avenge their boss. 

Already very efficient in their killing game, the girls never need to worry about cleaning up after themselves even if Chisato does get a lengthy lecture from the long suffering Mr. Tasaka who as it turns out has a lot of unsolicited advice about how she’s doing her job wrong or at least in ways which are inconvenient to him. Nevertheless while trying to live their normal lives they wind up sucked into gangland intrigue having accidentally offed a major supplier and thereafter engaged in a vendetta with equally crazed yakuza daughter Himari (Mone Akitani) who in a recurring motif proves much more in tune with contemporary gangsterdom than her “sexist” bother Kazuaki (Satoshi Uekiya). 

Gangsterdom has indeed changed, the boss declaring that they need to find a more “female-centric” business which is what brings them to a maid cafe as they declare themselves mystified by “moe”, rapidly becoming extremely irritated by the sickly sweet aesthetic of the cafe which requires them to order food through a series of annoyingly cutesy codewords while young women in ridiculous outfits call them “master” and satisfy their every whim. In some ways the Baby Assassins are a subversion of the kawaii ideal while also to some extent embodying its essential traits in their mix of infinite competence and adorable cluelessness, Chisato forever forgetting what’s she’s done with her weapons while Mahiro constantly mutters to herself under her breath. 

For them, killing is just another job which they mostly enjoy but can also be annoying, just like each other’s company. A mismatched pair, their dynamic strangely recalls Saint Young Men only they’re highly trained assassins trying to perfect a cover identity rather than peaced-out deities engaged in an ethnological study of life on Earth. They have a brief falling out over the same thing most roommates fight about, one feeling the other is not pulling their weight, Chisato irritated by Mahiro’s inability to find a job and Mahiro frustrated that Chisato devotes too much time to her side gig and not enough to their main job as killers for hire. Meanwhile, they’re suddenly plunged into a very adult world of bills and taxes and insurance, their handler promising to handle some of that for them because ironically enough they’re much more afraid of the taxman than they’ve ever been of the police. 

Surreal and filled with deadpan humour not to mention expertly choreographed fight sequences by Hydra’s Kensuke Sonomura, Baby Assassins is a perfectly pitched coming-of-age tale in which two young women attempt to find a place for themselves while contending with a still patriarchal society, eventually discovering a complementary sense of solidarity in their opposing natures as they come together to clean up their own mess while defiantly striking out for their futures as “members of society” whatever that may mean. 

Baby Assassins screened as part of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Graveyard of Honor (新・仁義の墓場, Takashi Miike, 2002)

In Kinji Fukasaku’s 1975 jitsuroku eiga Graveyard of Honor, a collection of voices open the film musing on whether the hero was corrupted by the times in which he lived or merely born crazy. Like most jitsuroku or true account gangster movies of the ‘70s, Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor is a post-war story about a man who failed to adapt himself to the rules of his society which was of course in constant flux though the rules of the yakuza are perhaps as fixed and timeless as any. Inspired by the same source material Takashi Miike’s comparatively subdued, contemplative Graveyard of Honor (新・仁義の墓場, Shin Jingi no Hakaba) maintains the moody, noirish feel of the ‘70s gangster drama complete with melancholy jazz score but updates the legend of Rikio Ishikawa to late 20th century Japan which again finds itself in crisis, floundering for direction and filled with despair. The bubble has burst in more ways than one as the young in particular awaken to the fact they have been deceived by the false promise that the good times of the Bubble years were cost free and would last forever leaving them abandoned in a world they no longer recognise as their own. 

Unlike Rikio Ishikawa who, we are told, always wanted to be a gangster, Rikuo Ishimatsu (Goro Kishitani) falls into the gokudo world by chance, his life thereafter one long fall until the bloody suicide with which the film opens. A bleach blonde dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant, he gets an offer he can’t refuse when he calmly defuses a would be assassin by hitting him on the head with a chair, earning the eternal gratitude of boss Sawada (Shingo Yamashiro) who takes him on and makes him his protege. This meteoric rise in the yakuza ranks, however, is not without its drawbacks especially in that it destabilises the internal politics of the Sawada gang with old retainers instantly resentful that this young upstart has leap frogged them to sit at the boss’ side while they’ve patiently put the work in only to be sidelined. 

A stretch in prison for avenging the boss’ honour brings him into contact with Imamura (Ryosuke Miki), later his sworn brother but also his opposing number, possibly the last honourable yakuza. “A yakuza without honour isn’t worth shit” Imamura’s boss later remarks, instructing him that Rikuo is a liability he’ll have to take responsibility for, but in this graveyard of honour that kind of responsibility is the one that will get you killed. Honourable yakuza can no longer survive in the world of corporatised thuggery that is the modern gokudo existence. Later we realise that the tale is being narrated by Rikuo’s former underling, Kikkawa, who reminds us that “even yakuza are human beings” existing within a social structure with clearly defined rules which must be followed, yet the rules themselves are largely superficial and Kikkawa survives because he subverts them, abandoning the reckless Rikuo for the certainty of Sawada and setting himself on the traditional gokudo path of sucking up to the boss in the constant hope of advancement. 

Kikkawa is, in a sense, the grovelling salaryman to Rikuo’s frenzied maverick, one as much they symptom of the age as another. Rikuo’s rise occurs against the economic boomtown of Japan in the ‘80s which is as much a paradise for gangsters as for anyone else but also a kind of twilight, the yakuza as an institution relegated to the Showa era and the post-war past. Gangsters forced out of their families like the desperate ronin of the feudal era further destabilise an already chaotic environment which, like that of the post-war years, is filled with despair and disillusionment only to be further disrupted by the advent of natural disaster and economic collapse. 

Like the yakuza of the jitsuroku, those of Miike’s Graveyard of Honor struggle to reorient themselves in a changing society, no more equipped to deal with economic stagnation than their forbears were for the end of occupation and the increasing irrelevance of gangsterdom in a world of economic prosperity. Increasingly paranoid and anxious, Rikuo sees betrayal in all quarters and remains essentially powerless, eventually imprisoned in what appears to have been previously used as a child’s bedroom. He seeks escape in drugs which he finds by chance, and then in romance with an equally powerless woman who bizarrely seems to have fallen in love with him after he brutally raped her though their strange, drug-fuelled quasi-wedding ceremony is the tenderest, most vulnerable we ever see them. Yet as the opening scene implied, all there is is futility. Knowing what he knows, Kikkawa meditates on his memories of happier days when he was just a minion at Rikuo’s side. In this graveyard of honour only the slippery survive and the only way to be free is to fall, and fall hard. 

Original trailer (English subtitles)