Over the years, acquaintances of mine have boasted of their brushes with local gangsters. But few, I would wager, have become pals with one. Yakuza and katagi (straight citizens) tend to move in separate circles, with the former often viewing the latter as sheep to be fleeced or chickens to be plucked.

But in Shotaro Kobayashi’s brilliant buddy comedy “Hamon: Yakuza Boogie,” the slacker hero (Yu Yokoyama) becomes the unwilling, constantly whining side-kick to a hard-core gangster (Kuranosuke Sasaki) who regards him as unreliable and generally contemptible.

Based on the fifth novel in a best-selling series by Hiroyuki Kurokawa about this unlikely pair, the film is not as contrived as it sounds. The slacker, Ninomiya, works as a “construction consultant” who hires gangsters to resolve (if that is the correct word) labor disputes, while the gangster, Kuwahara, is one of his “contractors,” though a new anti-gang law, Ninomiya complains, has reduced his business to nearly nothing.

Hamon: Yakuza Boogie (Hamon: Futari no Yakubyogami)
Run Time 120 mins
Language Japanese
Opens JAN. 28

This pair end up together in a meeting with an elderly, oleaginous film producer, Koshimizu (Isao Hashizume), who wants to pick their brains for an upcoming film set in the gang world. Ninomiya is excited by the idea, as well as by Koshimizu’s curvy daughter Reimi (Manami Hashimoto), while Kuwahara is rightly suspicious.

To cut a long and financially complicated story short, Koshimizu runs off with the money he has swindled from investors for his nonexistent movie, including that of Kuwahara’s urbane boss Shimada (Jun Kunimura). Kuwahara journeys to the boonies of Ibaraki, where he has heard Koshimizu is hiding, with Ninomiya in tow.

There they find their quarry, but also two unruly punks from a bigger, more powerful gang — the Takizawas, who are also looking for recover funds from the producer. Kuwahara’s lesson in the finer points of etiquette for this pair leads to not only busted heads but also a major beef with their Takizawa bosses. Meanwhile, Koshimizu and Reimi fly the coop to Macau.

The many ensuing twists elicit more laughs than shocks, though Kobayashi, who also directed a 2015 Wowow drama based on Kurokawa’s fiction, stages the gangster dust-ups with wince-inducing stunts, as well as laugh-out-loud gags delivered in flavorsome Osaka dialect.

The film is grounded in realism about not only gang life but also human nature, including its stubborn tendency to surprise. The cowardly, lazy Ninomiya would seem to be useless to a two-fisted type like Kuwahara — until he proves himself useful. Meanwhile, as his no-nonsense cousin Yuki (Keiko Kitagawa) reminds him, he is wasting his time and risking his neck messing with Kuwahara and his yakuza associates. But Ninomiya has his reasons — from family ties to a sneaking admiration for Kuwahara’s macho charisma and old-school gangster ethos.

There are, however, no heart-warming revelations or inspiring personal arcs. Kuwahara and Ninomiya face various tests, including the hamon (exile) of the title, but they remain essentially the same, with Ninomiya especially illustrating the age-old maxim “You can’t cure stupid.”

As Ninomiya, Yokoyama is the latest pop idol (he is a member of the boy band Kanjani Eight) to gamely play a role as far removed from idol-dom as possible. (Fellow Johnny’s agency talent Go Morita ventured even farther as a psychotic serial killer in last year’s “Himeanole.”)

But the film’s true revelation is Sasaki as Kuwahara. A veteran with a long list of stage, TV and movie credits, Sasaki brings not only the requisite swagger and brio to the role, but also impeccable comic timing and intricately realized characterization. Even the way he sings karaoke in English, with a self-infatuated self-assurance, is Kuwahara through and through.

Obviously, Ninomiya and Kuwahara have to embark on more adventures together — and to date there are five more novels in Kurokawa’s series to film. Save for the fact that they hate each other, what’s to stop them?

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