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‘Ken and Kazu’: The yakuza isn’t all guns and glamour

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Most films about the yakuza depict its members as fully formed and distinctly different from the general run of humanity, somewhat like action figures just out of the box. The reality, as Hiroshi Shoji’s “Ken and Kazu” shows us with a gritty directness and power, is more quotidian. For Shoji’s title heroes, crime is less a way of proving their outlaw manliness than a risky means to an uncertain monetary end as they face a bleak future.

Based on Shoji’s own script, “Ken and Kazu” rejects the gangster genre’s macho romanticism, while depicting its principals in the round, their dysfunctional families included. In this it resembles “Ryuji,” Shoji Kaneko’s 1983 indie classic about an ex-con (Kaneko) trying to go straight with his much-put-upon wife’s support, a film that was scripted and shot after the director/star apprenticed with an actual gang.

Named Best Picture in the Japanese Cinema Splash section of last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, “Ken and Kazu” reflects a different era to “Ryuji.” The lines that once separated the gangs from straight society have since become blurred or erased. One comparison is the U.S. television series “Breaking Bad,” whose ordinary-guy hero becomes a meth kingpin and finds his life in constant jeopardy.

In “Ken and Kazu,” that guy is Ken (Shinsuke Kato), who works at a failing auto repair shop in the Tokyo suburb of Ichikawa. As the story begins he is also dealing meth with Kazu (Katsuya Maiguma), a punkish pal further down the road to criminality, and Teru (Kisetsu Fujiwara), a dangerously naive young shop hand. Their boss is Todo (Haruki Takano), a shifty senpai (senior) from Ken and Kazu’s schooldays, whose enforcer is Tagami (Daisuke Ehara), a silent, sharp-eyed yakuza.

Ken helps Kazu beat up rival dealers trying to encroach on their turf, but hesitates when his friend suggests going into business behind Todo’s back. The reason: He plans to start a new life with his pregnant girlfriend, Saki (Shuna Iijima), and doesn’t want to first end up jailed or dead.

But Kazu needs a big score to rid himself of his dementia-afflicted mother, since permanent care doesn’t come cheap. This may seem an unfilial attitude, but as we see in flashbacks, mom brutally abused him as a boy and he can now barely restrain himself from throttling her.

The stage is thus set for ripe melodrama, gangster-movie division, but Shoji instead opts for tight shots and rapid-fire edits that ramp up the tension, while his spare, pointed dialogue brings even formulaic scenes electrically alive. Among exceptions are Ken’s interludes with Saki, who expresses her entirely justified discontent in whines instead of roars. The generic action-movie music, an unfortunate distraction throughout the film, also doesn’t help.

The film’s true focus, though, is on Ken and Kazu’s volatile relationship, and here, it is on firmer ground. Though long-time friends, the two are at cross purposes and have quite different personalities. As played by the talented character actor Kato, Ken has a dreamy, distracted air (Kazu kiddingly calls him a “dead fish”) but can flare into two-fisted violence when the need arises.

As Kazu, Maiguma nails the punk persona perfectly, from the challenging sneer to the rangy physique that looks sculpted from regular street-fighting, not hours in the gym. This type is common enough in action movies, but Maiguma gives us glimpses of the wounded kid within that humanizes the character, if not making him less explosive.

The ending is something of a foregone conclusion, but maybe I’ve just seen too many films about buddies in deadly peril with everything at stake. And no, I’m not talking about high-body-count Hollywood-style carnage. I hope that’s not a spoiler for you. If it is, you’ve probably never been to Ichikawa.