Film / Reviews

Quadruple amputee yakuza raises hell in 'Daruma'

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Yakuza are not usually thought of as disabled, but more than a few have had their pinky fingers, or a section thereof, sliced off with a blade. Traditionally, this disabling is punishment for violating the gang code.

In Hideo Sakaki’s yakuza shocker “Kiyamachi Daruma” (“Daruma”), the situation of its disabled hero, a former boss in Kyoto’s Kiyamachi entertainment district, is far more extreme. To atone for an underling’s apparent betrayal of trust, the boss, Katsuura (Kenichi Endo), threw himself on the tender mercies of a rival gang. When we first see him, five years later, he has only stumps for arms and legs, and is waited on hand and foot by young gangster Sakamoto (Masaki Miura) at the behest of the current boss, Furusawa (Yuichi Kimura).

Katsuura describes himself as a daruma, an armless and legless doll that rights itself when tilted, but there is no making Katsuura right again. The film is not an uplifting tale of triumph over adversity. Based on Hiroyuki Maruno’s novel of the same title, “Daruma” is violent and hard to watch.

Daruma (Kiyamachi Daruma)
Run Time 115 mins
Language Japanese
Opens Oct. 3

This was also true of Sakaki’s previous feature from 2014, “Sutegataki Hitobito” (“Disregarded People”), with its down-and-out hero who compulsively leers and paws at women and, once he makes a conquest, ruts like a crazed goat. Depending on your point of view, his behavior is either disgustingly outrageous or blackly humorous.

Also disregarding the social niceties is Katsuura, who works as a debt collector with Sakamoto’s stoic assistance. At his first stop, a glowering Katsuura crawls on his stomach like a mutilated turtle toward a terrified middle-aged debtor (Susumu Terajima) and his sister, announcing that he is now under their care. To show what he means, he yells at their teenaged daughter Yuri (Rina Takeda) to wipe a spill on his crotch and, when she fearfully complies, he licks her neck like a voracious slug.

Sasaki films this and other disturbing scenes with in-your-face close-ups and no irony whatsoever. This, he says with every shot, is what the yakuza are; this is what they do.

Thankfully, the film is more than a gangster freak show, just as Tod Browning’s 1932 carnival shocker “Freaks” was more than the exploitation fest its title implied. Sakamoto obediently does Katsuura’s biding, from chauffeuring to wiping his soiled posterior, but hates what this unwanted job is doing to his soul. And Katsuura, despite playing a monster in human guise, also has feelings and emotional wounds, as seen in his pre-amputation memories and private interactions with Sakamoto.

The film’s convoluted mystery plot, however, revolves around the now-disappeared underling betrayer, Satoshi (Tamiyasu Cho). Was he acting on his own or was someone else pulling the strings? A feisty deaf woman (Anna Odaka) who was once Satoshi’s lover may hold an important clue. Meanwhile, a conniving, psychopathic gang lieutenant (Houka Kinoshita) is chipping away at Furusawa’s authority — and Furusawa seems strangely disinclined to fight back.

As the title hero, Endo gives a performance that deserves the over-used adjective “indelible.” If you can get his Katsuura out of your head, you weren’t paying attention. But Miura more than holds his own, acting out Sakamoto’s inner pain with unbridled intensity.

So did Sakaki — a talented actor himself — really need to include a skin-crawling scene where an eardrum is pierced by an ice pick? “Daruma” would still have been a strong film without it.

But 83 years on, “Freaks” stays burned in our collective brain less for its fine acting and more for how its disabled cast can shock us — however much we sympathize with their plight.

Call “Freaks” the unvarnished truth, but it’s also in the carny business of jolting the rubes. For better and worse, “Daruma” is its latest cinematic heir. Step right up, folks!

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