The aptly-titled A Family competently treads familiar ground. This yakuza action-drama, written and directed by Michihito Fujii, suffers from attempting to cover too many narrative beats, but does well when working within the stylised confines of organised crime. Kenji Yamamoto (Gô Ayano), affectionately known throughout as Lil Ken, is an angry young man. He is first seen attending the funeral of his father. With bleached blonde hair and dressed head to toe in white North Face, Lil Ken stands out amongst the otherwise traditional mourners.
It is quickly clear that he was not close to the man with whom he shares a family name. After robbing a drug dealer, Kenji falls under the protection of a local yakuza boss. Hiroshi Shibasaki (Hiroshi Tachi) identifies Kenji’s potential as a yakuza after the young man defends the boss from attackers at their local noodle shop. Initially hesitant to enter the organisation, Kenji relents when he learns yakuza do not deal in drugs. In this way, we learn that his father was an addict. He runs from one broken family into the arms of another.
Kenji is sworn into the family. This second section, set six years after the first, is the most consistently compelling part of the film. Lil Ken has taken well to the yakuza lifestyle. He can fight, which means he can earn his keep. His family is complemented by the brotherly figures of Ryuta Hosono (Hayato Ichihara), who accompanies Kenji on his rounds, and Tsutomu Nakamura (Yukiya Kitamura), a self-serious lieutenant of Shibasaki. In typical gangster fashion, we learn the times are changing. The world no longer needs yakuza and will soon “exterminate” them, in the words of corrupt Detective Osako (Ryô Iwamatsu). The old-fashioned yakuza hold firm and fight to maintain its territory against encroaching rivals. However, the film becomes more interested in the private life of Kenji. Here is where director Fujii loses his way.
Kenji falls in what we’re told is love with Yuka Kudo, a hostess played by Machiko Ono. His initial attempts are characterised by a violence simmering just below the surface. On their first meetings, Kenji assaults her, being under the impression that she is aware of what their meeting meant. Despite this, we eventually learn that she has indeed fallen in love with him. There are now competing notions of family at play, the incompatibility of which has destructive consequences. In the final section, set 14 years later, we see the dissolution of these various families based entirely on their association with the yakuza. The world has moved on and desperately wants to distance itself from the organisation.
Fujii’s direction is inconsistent. There are sections where I was far too aware of the camera, which spins and tilts for no discernible reason other than to be stylish. There are two well-choreographed action sequences which remind me of stronger scenes in other films, which is never a good sign. However, once these are out of the way, the film settles onto a few instances of short, brutal violence. These are ultimately more successful for how they tease out the incompatibility of the gangster lifestyle with domestic normality. The association the characters have with the former ultimately precludes access to the latter. This tragedy is played with a sentimentality that doesn’t quite engage with any serious exploration of why these two lifestyles don’t play in tandem.
Despite this inconsistency, A Family does what a combination of action and drama would suggest. We are treated to a series of yakuza theatrics while also observing a family drama. The film is not overly concerned with putting too much pressure on either of these genres, resulting in a rather straightforward experience. There is enough action to justify the criminal trappings and enough emotion wrung from the characters to justify the dramatic label. A Family is overlong by about twenty minutes, but well worth a weekend viewing.