In “A Family,” director Michihito Fujii’s original script combines a yakuza actioner with a family drama. This is not the oil-and-water mix it might seem to be — after all, the “Godfather” films are also about family, despite the high body counts.

Absent in “The Godfather,” however, is the over-the-top sentimentalism that is endemic to the family drama genre in Japan, Fujii’s film included. The difference is due to directorial and cultural sensibility and, if you’re being cynical, box-office calculation. The list of Japanese dramas that became hits by targeting their audience’s tear ducts is long.

Is that the case with “A Family,” though? Fujii made his critical and commercial breakthrough in 2019 with “The Journalist,” an award-winning hit that was daring in its critique of current Japanese politics. A manipulative hack he is not.

A Family (Yakuza to Kazoku The Family)
Run Time 136 mins.
Language Japanese

In his latest, Fujii has delivered an homage to the classic yakuza films of the 1960s, when noble outlaws played by Ken Takakura and Koji Tsuruta lived in fealty to the gang code of jingi (“honor and humanity”), meaning they were ready and willing to sacrifice themselves for their “family.”

But that code, as Kinji Fukasaku revealed in his seminal five-part “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” series (1973-74), is a sham in real gang life, where self-interest rules and hoodlums are in it for the cold hard cash. Evidently, Fujii never got the memo.

“A Family” covers two decades in the life of Kenji Yamamoto (Go Ayano), whom we first meet in 1999 as a golden-haired teenage punk. Two-fisted and fearless, Kenji, or “Kenbo,” attracts the attention of Hiroshi Shibasaki (Hiroshi Tachi), the avuncular boss of the Shibasaki-gumi gang. When they first meet, Kenji is so rude to Hiroshi that his lieutenants are more inclined to whack him than welcome him, but the orphaned troublemaker is eventually won over by Hiroshi’s saintly patience and kindness, as well as support in a gang dust-up that nearly kills him.

Once a member of Shibasaki’s gang, Kenji becomes embroiled in a territorial dispute with the rival Kyoyo-kai, while falling for Yuka Kudo (Machiko Ono), a pure-hearted club hostess who pushes back against his brutishness and wins his respect. Kenji also befriends Aiko Kimura (Shinobu Terajima), a down-to-earth gangster widow, and her cute son, Tsubasa (Hayato Isomura).

In 2019, Kenji returns from a stretch in prison to his old Tokyo stomping grounds and finds everything changed, from his gang and his beloved boss, both sadly diminished, to his relationship with Yuka, who now works at City Hall and is a mother. Meanwhile, Tsubasa has grown into a millennial version of a young, arrogant Kenji.

The film’s mawkish laments for the passing of old-school gangsterdom, killed off by stringent anti-gang laws, are frankly ludicrous. For all their romantic celebrations of yakuza virtue, the classic films typically viewed the criminal life as one to avoid or escape, not celebrate.

And both Fukasaku’s and Coppola’s masterpieces had little use for treacle about underworld family values: Their heroes were hard-boiled types, physically and mentally fighting to survive. “A Family,” on the other hand, tries its darndest to extract sighs and sobs with scenes of blubbering thugs. I don’t remember Michael Corleone shedding many tears for Fredo, whose ending had pathos, not faintly ridiculous bathos.

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