Release Date: N/A
Duration: 118 mins.
Director: Oudai Kojima
Writer: HAM-R (Script),
Starring: Ikken Yamamoto, Kim Jin-cheol, Kim Chang-bak, Keisuke Mitsui, Sogen Higuchi,
Joint is the debut feature of director Oudai Kojima. While it doesn’t do anything new with its iteration of a story of gangsters, loyalty and betrayal, he makes it memorable and very much worth watching through imbuing it with an atmosphere so strong it will feel like you are plunged into the crime world alongside a charismatic main character whose arc allows you to see every aspect of it.
The story follows Takeshi Ishigami (Ikken Yamamoto), an ex-con who aims to leave his shady past behind. Before he can do that, he must return to a life of crime in Tokyo. Reacquainting himself with Yakuza contacts he restarts his “list business.” It’s an innocuous name used to describe harvesting information for fraud schemes. Rather interestingly, Takeshi was more a money man than a regular footsoldier and he goes back to what he knows best with the intention of using this source of cash to fund his forays into venture capitalism. His path isn’t easy but as he painstakingly climbs his way out of the criminal underworld, he begins to attempt to drag his friends along. However, just as Takeshi thinks that he might get out, he is dragged back in as a gang war erupts.
The drama surrounding the conflict is standard stuff but made compelling enough through its sense of verisimilitude when it comes to the world of the Yakuza and Takeshi’s precarious place in it.
Takeshi is a good way to get into the details being an associate rather than a fully tatted up thug. A smart and debonair guy who chooses not to use his fists, he is tolerated rather than accepted and his moneymaking abilities give him some leeway in how he can act. This, as well as having been away in prison, logically allows the introduction of exposition and plot set-ups into the story through Takeshi’s catch-ups with friends and foes in different positions who help to contextualise the different factions and the stakes involved in the gang war while also serving to give his relationships and decisions enough dramatic impetus to brush past any sense of cliché.
The heavier details on the “list business” is where the film comes alive as it delivers what feels like lessons on how the modern-day Yakuza work their scams and the confluence between big business and crime. Brief intertitles act as chapter headings as well as info-dumps. They are nimbly placed amidst major plot points and montages showing the harvesting of personal information like names, addresses, and numbers from used cellphones that lead to old folks getting scammed. These scenes ooze enough verisimilitude on the level of the David Simon show The Wire and it is guaranteed to put viewers on edge while also making them feel informed and invested in proceedings, not least because of the way things are filmed.
Made on a budget of 5 million yen (just shy of 50,000 dollars), the film is done with a faux-documentary aesthetic delivered by handheld camera that makes it feel closer in tone to Steven Sodebergh’s Traffic (2000) than the more meticulous-looking modern gangster films like Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage trilogy. Still, there is a lot of precise framing, fast edits and frequently eye-catching visuals to give this film enough theatrical oomph to go with the believable milieu. Director Oudai Kojima definitely makes the most of the budget with multiple business and nightclub settings that have a steel-and-glass-and-stark-lighting look for the upmarket areas, traditional villas for Yakuza meetings, and the dingy business hotels and immigrant cafes for the working-class areas. When it comes to the action, Kojima opts for the low-budget and painfully believable blunt force of punches and baton strikes delivered by a cast of guys who look like authentic bruisers and the strung-out kids you would cross the street to avoid.
And now I come to Ikken Yamamoto, our leading man. He has come out of nowhere to prove himself charismatic enough to carry this film. Handsome but with an edge, the swagger of a gambler, he can also do soulful moments which mesh with the film’s moments of moody lighting and atmospheric backdrops – gazing out at the Tokyo skyline, a midnight walk by a train line and a dawn walk on a beach. He is a good companion to escort us through the crime world and I became invested in his journey.
If there are any criticisms to level, it’s that a subplot involving the police is abruptly dropped and female characters are given the short shrift as they come in only one variety: gangster molls. Overall, these are minor as the rest of the film works up an atmosphere and story that allows it to hit hard.
A lot of films flirt with the glamour and misdeeds of the Yakuza but this one really feels like it immerses you in it. From the first distinctive shots, to its ironic ending, there is a depth to the story and form while the information given to the viewers feels so realistic that it allows the film to stand separate from many other crime films. The actors are all perfectly cast and give compelling performances so that even if the film trots out familiar storylines and themes, it’s still a thrilling watch.
Joint will be screened on Sunday, March 07th, at Cine Libre Umeda 3 at 16:10.