Film / Reviews

'Ninkyo Gakuen': Yakuza comedy fails to make the grade

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

“We may be yakuza, but we’re not thugs,” declares Yuzo Akimoto (Toshiyuki Nishida), the leader of a tiny clan that takes its social responsibilities very seriously. Forget drugs, human trafficking, extortion rackets and all the other standard recourses for organized crime groups. This band of gangster do-gooders abides by three inviolable rules: Always fight fair, always clean your plate and never lay a hand on respectable citizens — unless it’s a helping one.

When the Akimoto-gumi’s absent-minded patriarch agrees to help a struggling high school, it’s left to his stern-faced deputy to take command. On his first day at school, Seiji Himura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) announces to the slack-jawed faculty that he’s their new director. But when he has to deal with an unruly student, Chihiro (Wakana Aoi), he gets socked in the jaw for his efforts.

Himura and his misfit brethren soon discover that they have bigger problems to worry about. Someone keeps sneaking into the grounds at night to smash the school windows — and when they catch the culprits, they end up uncovering a conspiracy that’s far more convoluted than it needed to be, but belies the film’s pulp novel origins.

Ninkyo Gakuen (Ninkyo Gakuen)
Rating
Run Time 119 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens SEPT. 27

Nishijima has some “Kindergarten Cop”-style fun mocking his tough-guy screen persona, though he still gets to do his best Ken Takakura impersonation later on, putting his tats on display as he takes on a roomful of hoodlums. One of the film’s better jokes is that Himura is an anachronism. When he warns some misbehaving students about otoshimae (reprisal), they have to Google it.

Yet he is also, boringly, a decent guy. It doesn’t take him long to form an emotional bond with Chihiro, united by their mutual dislike of school. The film wants to have its anti-hero without the “anti” part.

There’s little effort to conceal the predictability of the story’s arc, as the yakuza end up giving the school a new lease of life, Himura learns to crack a smile and an unorthodox kind of justice is served. The film’s comedy relies as much on quick-fire editing and music cues as it does on decent gags, but enough of the jokes land to keep things humming along.

In a story crowded with characters, it’s the saltiest performers who stand out. Nishida relishes every scene, and Katsuhisa Namase serves up the purest ham as the school’s obsequious principal. The kids are a forgettable bunch, and subplots involving Chihiro’s dance ambitions and a creepy, camera-toting admirer (Shono Hayama) both go nowhere.

As for the Akimoto-gumi, most of them barely get past their one-line character descriptions: Kenichi (Tetsuhiro Ikeda) is an ace chef; Tetsu (Koki Maeda) is the chubby computer whiz; Minoru (Atsushi Ito) likes loud shirts; and I can’t even remember what Shinkichi’s (Kazuma Sano) defining trait was supposed to be.

Director Hisashi Kimura seldom misses an opportunity to remind you of his TV origins. The action is perfunctory, and the film is just a little too eager to descend into sentimentality.

Like so much mainstream Japanese cinema, “Ninkyo Gakuen” does exactly what’s required of it — including laying the groundwork for a possible sequel — and nothing more. In his first meeting with the Akimoto-gumi, the principal insists that his school is “perfectly average.” You could say the same thing about the film itself.

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