The Family (2021) review

Introduction

Two years ago, Michihito Fujii pleased international audiences all around the world by delivering The Journalist (2019), a damning exploration of the continued attempts of the ruling party to silence and manipulate the media. Will The Family also has some flavour of critique or will Fujii loose him into chivalric romanticism?

Review

1999. One night at a local yakiniku restaurant, Kenji Yamamoto (Go Ayano), who has recently lost his father Masaharu due to an overdosis, intervenes when a gang of criminals try to murder the boss of the Shibazaki-gumi, Hiroshi Shibazaki (Hiroshi Tachi) and some of his most trusted members, hereby preventing the death of the oyabun/oyaji (boss). The next day, he is picked up by Tsutomu Nakamura (Yukiya Nakamura) and brought to the family’s office to extend their thanks for his life-saving intervention and invite him to join their ranks. He refuses their invitation. Not much later, he is kidnapped by the kyoyo-kai after attacking one of their drug dealers.  

6 years later, tensions between Kyoyo-kai, led by Masatoshi Kato (Kosuke Toyohara), and the Shibazaki-gumi are rising. Then, one day, Kenji, now part of the Shibazaki-gumi, attacks a lieutenant of the kyoyo-kai after he playfully insulted his boss.  

The Family (2021) by Michihito Fujii

The Family, a narrative that spans from 1999 to 2019, offers not only an exploration of the closed world of the Yakuza, but also how, as time passed, this world of organized crime has become more and more a stain that needs to be violently removed from the wider societal body. This impact of this societal field is most clearly evoked in the second half of The Family by revealing the destructive impact of widespread police interventions and broaching the difficulties subjects, who choose the mundane societal world over the world of crime, are faced with due to the suffocating implications of the five-year rule and lingering societal prejudices. Moreover, these attempts to diminish the power of the Yakuza problematizes the very idealization of its member about what the Extreme Way (gokudo) represents and persuades some of its members to resort to more illegal and uncouth means of gathering money.

That The Family can be read as a compassionate criticism of Japan’s treatment of former yakuza – Should Japan not positively assist the reintegration of those who leave the yakuza? – is because smartly Fujii centers his narrative around Kenji’s desire for an idealized father and the subjective trajectory such desire determines. Some spectators might accuse Fujii from glorifying the way of the Yakuza, but these spectators fail to discern that Fujii delivers an emphatic character study that explores the function the symbolic structure of the family can play for a subject.    

The Family (2021) by Michihito Fujii

When we meet Kenji in 1999, he has been violently robbed by his failed father (Acting-note 1). Even though his father is a victim of the societal pessimism that is born from economic decline and struggle – a decline that seduces many subjects to sedate themselves to quiet their subjective agitation, his violence is not directed to society as such, but to those who profit from the blossoming subjective unrest, i.e. the yakuza drug dealer who is complicit in his father’s death, as well as the very substances that consumed and destroyed his father. Kenji’s violence lacks purpose and is, in essence, but a mere lashing-out of his anger and frustration.

Kenji is, moreover, a subject in search of a new father-figure. This is beautifully implied in the yakiniku-scene when Kenji is unable to avert his gaze from the ‘father/parent’ of the Shibazaki family. This sudden scopic fascination on Shibazaki reveals that his unconscious desire for a father has been ensnared and that he, despite not realizing it, has found the fatherly element he desperately needs in the image of the fatherly Shibazaki.

Yet, the conflictual past with his own father makes it difficult for Kenji to assume such desire and compels him to brutally refuse Shibazaki’s invitation into his family. Kenji’s subjective deadlock – his position of violent frustration – is determined by the signifier ‘drugs’. Not only does this signifier represent the anger towards the exploitative other who caused his fatherly loss, but it also signifies his anger with his father’s failure and weakness. Yet, what causes Kenji to finally accept Shibazaki’s invitation? It is, in our view, not his ‘paternal’ act of rescuing him from an untimely death at the hands of the Shoyo-kai as such that enables Kenji to enter the ranks of the yakuza, but the genuine fatherly interest that fuels the signifiers that he addresses to him. Shibazaki’s compassionate fatherly signifiers, in short, allows Kenji to embrace his until then repressed desire for a father figure.     

The Family (2021) by Michihito Fujii

After the first time-jump, spectators will easily discern thatthe nature of Kenji’s violence has radically changed. His violence is now structured by a set of strict symbolic rules – e.g. ‘You shall not insult the oyabun!’. Yet, the incorporation of these unwritten rules is not simply a result of his symbolic entry into the kobun-oyabun relationship by sharing the sake-cup (oyakosakazuki), but a result of his idealization of Shibazaki as fatherly instance. This idealization, this imaginary deception, does not only instill a blind devotion to the fatherly figure (filial piety) but is, in fact, the very element that structures his functioning as ‘kobun’ within society. Kenji’s idealization of the father, in short, forms the backbone of all his acts and signifiers (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2). Yet, what will Kenji do when his ‘father’ reveals his subjective reality – by taking decisions against his kobun’s assumed ‘code of ethics’ (Ninkyodo) – and, unintentionally, undermines his idealized imaginary position as ‘oyabun’ (Narra-note 3)?   

That Fujii aims to highlight the importance a father, whether idealized or not, can play for the subject is also evident from the final third of The Family. Fujii does not only confront the spectator with Tsubasa Kimura (Hayato Isomura), who is searching for the truth about his murdered father Hajime, a lieutenant for the Shibazaki-gumi, but also reveals the interest Aya, the 14-year-old daughter of Yuka (Machiko Ono), has in knowing who her father is.

The Family (2021) by Michihito Fujii

The composition of The Family stands out due to its fluid dynamism and its compositional roughness. By relying on dynamic shots in his composition, Fujii succeeds in visually pleasing the spectator with beautiful long takes. His choice to also use many semi-static shots, on the other hand, gives the unfolding of his narrative some visual consistency and heightens the compositional fluidity. The subdued roughness that marks many shots gives The Family a subtle documentary-feel, heightening the naturalism of Kenji’s subjective trajectory, while bursts of wild compositional roughness allow Fujii to ensure that sudden moments of violent action are satisfying and, whenever it is needed, to heighten the emotional impact of certain events.

Fujii’s composition is also rich in shots with more steady camerawork. In some cases, Fujii resorts to such static and dynamic moments to spice up his composition with some more artfully crafted shot-compositions. This kind of visual decorations, generally generally used in moments of transition, slow-down the narrative rhythm and give the spectator some breathing space. In other cases, such kind of camerawork is pleasingly exploited to heighten the dramatic and often tensive flavour of certain relational encounters – e.g. Kenji and Yuka (Machiko Ono), … etc.  

The Family (2021) by Michihito Fujii

The colour and lightning-design is, in this respect, important in heightening the scopic pleasure of the visuals. While Fujii paints with natural colours and naturalistic lightning, his thoughtful approach often gives his shot-compositions a subtle dramatic tension that does not fail to please the eye (Cine-note 1).

With The Family, Fujii delivers a highly original yakuza narrative. Rather than presenting an action-rich story full of blood and conflict, he offers a moving and heartfelt exploration of one subject’s passage through the world of organized crime. Fujii’s character study, beautifully framed and brought to life with great performances, does not only allow The Family to touch upon the importance that the (idealized) figure of the father can have for a subject’s lifepath, but also offer a critique of the suffocating impact Japan’s exclusion ordinances have on ex-yakuza who try to reintegrate in the mundane society.   

Notes

Acting-note 1: Go Ayano masterfully breathes life into Kenji. In fact, it is his performance that ensures that the emotional dimension of the narrative feels genuine and succeeds in touching the spectator.   

Narra-note 1: The only reason why Kenji approaches Miyuki is due the ‘Words’ of the ‘Father’ – his word is law. It is only because Shibazaki implies that he should have a girl that he, as if he was following an order, approaches her.

Narra-note 2: One could also argue that, due to the idealization of the father, Kenji’s sense of giri (duty) is fundamentally intertwined with his sense of ninjo (honor).  

Narra-note 3: The time that Kenji is confronted with a rupture between his image and the real human in front of him, he performs the chivalrous act (of violent retribution) that erases the fatherly revelation of weakness and to ensure his idealized position.

Cine-note 1: The second time-shift is visually emphasized by a darker colour-design and a more subdued lightning design and a change in aspect-ratio. The change at the level of colour and lightning crafts a depressive and forlorn atmosphere that beautifully expresses the state of the Shibazaki-gumi and Kenji’s mood – a mood determined by the failure of the ‘surrogate’ father and impossibility to be a father.

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