Takeshi Kitano has had some of his biggest critical and commercial successes with gangster films, beginning with his 1993 international breakthrough “Sonatine” and continuing through to his 2012 hit “Outrage Beyond” (“Beyond Outrage”), which screened in competition at the 2012 Venice Film Festival.
But as chillingly violent as his yakuza characters can be, they often have a blackly humorous side as well. When the gangsters in “Beyond Outrage” operatically vent on an unfortunate underling, it sounds something like a manzai (comic duo) insult routine.
In his new film “Ryuzo to Shichinin no Kobuntachi” (“Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen”), Kitano brings this comic undercurrent to the surface. Based on his own script about a gang of elderly retired yakuza, “Ryuzo” is intended as a laugh riot from beginning to end, with no glum reflections whatsoever on the plight of the aged. And it mostly is, though it helps to be a genre fan to get the inside jokes.
Now 68 and thus eligible for a senior discount card himself, Kitano may also be poking fun at his graying dankai no seidai (Japanese baby boomer) generation — once so cool but now sinking into decrepitude. He is most certainly having a laugh at yakuza genre formulas, beginning with the myth of the noble gangster.
The film’s driving force is star Tatsuya Fuji, who in the 1960s and early 1970s frequently played gangsters and punks, including a bike gang leader in Nikkatsu’s “Nora Neko Rock” (“Stray Cat Rock”) series, but has long since matured into a versatile actor appearing in everything from mainstream hits to the films of Nagisa Oshima, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and other internationally prominent directors.
In “Ryuzo” Fuji reverts to outlaw type as the title character, a retired gang boss bored silly living a quiet life with his peace-loving salaryman son (Masanobu Katsumura). He enjoys get-togethers with a loyal former lieutenant (Masaomi Kondo), though Ryuzo’s hot temper can make the civilians around them nervous.
One day, the aging gangster gets a cellphone call from a scammer pretending to be his son. The scammer requests ¥5 million to get him out of a job-threatening jam, but Ryuzo gets wise before he hands over the dough.
After hearing from a grizzled cop (Kitano) that the scammer and his crew belong to the Keihin Rengo gang, Ryuzo rounds up some old associates for organized payback. But when they gather in Ueno Park at the symbolic statue of Saigo Takamori, famed as “the last samurai,” he sees that these once-fearsome henchmen have become shambling wrecks.
“Fast-draw Mac” (Toru Shinagawa), named for his love of 1970s action star Steve McQueen, brandishes a loaded pistol but is too palsied to shoot straight. Portly former gang boss Mokichi (Akira Nakao) borrows pitiful sums from all and sundry. And “Stick Ichizo” (Ben Hiura) carries his trademark sword concealed in a walking stick, but instead of enemies he now mostly stabs cigarette butts.
How can this motley crew of pensioners — some on temporary leave from a nursing home or with one foot in the grave — take on the ruthless Keihin Rengo boss (Ken Yasuda) and his youthful (by comparison) gang? But take them on they do, with a pluck that’s pathetic and ridiculous, if somehow admirable.
What gives their feeble acts of derring-do a thin veneer of credibility is Fuji’s bravado performance as Ryuzo. Though looking every one of his 74 real-life years, Fuji brings a volatile energy to proceedings that would otherwise be merely absurd. Like many actors in Kitano’s yakuza epics, Fuji seems to thoroughly enjoy being let off the leash of “art” to storm about on screen. At the same time, he takes Ryuzo’s frustrations and resentments seriously. In other words, there’s plenty of scrappy life in the old guy yet. And when he starts raging against the dying of the light, look out for flying debris — and prepare to laugh.