As time went on, the yakuza film underwent many changes. From the pre-war Bakuto films, Mukokuseki Action films by Nikkatsu, Toei’s Ninkyo films, to the blossoming of the Jitsuroku eiga. Yet, in the eighties, in part due to the rise of VCR, the yakuza film started to struggle. Luckily, the rise of V-cinema allowed the yakuza film to blossom once more.
Sadly, such revival did not last and the yakuza genre has lost much of its popularity. Yet, this decline has not stopped directors to make movies in this genre. Kazuya Shiraishi, for instance, pleased audiences with his duology The Blood of Wolves (2018) and Last Of The Wolves (2021). And Oudai Kojima took up the challenge to offer, utilizing a common theme in the genre, an updated glance at organized crime in the contemporary Japanese societal field.
After spending two years in jail, Takeshi Ishigami (Ikken Yamamoto) is finally released. While Take is not a member of the Oshima clan, the biggest Yakuza syndicate in the Kanto region, he does, not long after returning to Tokyo, meet up with Kazutoshi Imamura (Takashi Hayashida), one of its members. Kazutoshi tells him that the clan has drastically changed in the two years he was in prison – all the violent guys are excommunicated and the people good with money are promoted.
Then, suddenly, Kazutoshi asks him to look over Yuki Hirono (Yuki Ito), who is in charge of the telephone fraud ever since Masayuki Araki (Sogen) was excommunicated. He agrees without any hesitation. Meeting Yuki and his right hand Tasuku Watanabe (Keita Kanegae), he quickly learns that the business is not going well due to the decreasing quality of the meibo – i.e. databases with personal information, and the increased focus of the police on shutting down any scam-operations.
Joint offers a rather complex crime drama built around the simple idea that ‘information is power and money’. Everything that happens within the narrative (e.g. making meibo, investing in the venture company, installing information-extraction virus on routers, … ect.) turns around the value that information has within our current digitalized society. Joint convincingly shows that the field of organized crime has drastically changed in the last few decades in part due to this digitalization.
This shift has, in fact, no impact on Takeshi – he already knows the value of information and has dealt information in the past. Yet, he encounters someone who has changed: his friend Yasu (Keisuke Mitsui). Gone straight himself, Yasu does his very best to pull Takeshi on the right path. He does not only secure him a job at a construction company after his release, he also gifted him a defunct company (office included) and, eventually, helps him to start invest his ‘dirty’ money into a struggling but promising venture company. The question that structures Joint, one that is often central in yakuza narratives, is simple: Can he escape the clutches of the criminal underworld or will the societal loathing and antipathy of ex-cons and his short passage in the criminal field catch up with him and pull him back into the world of violence, threats, and destruction?
Joint also explores how societal changes has led to a rift into the phantasmatic fabric of world of organized crime, a rift between the traditional ideals of yakuza-manhood of the past and the business-like ego they try to clothe themselves with. One fleeting remainder of such traditional thought is present within the banter between Yuki and Takeshi. Their phallically flavoured remarks – Did anyone stick a dick up your ass? – are not merely a support for the phantasmatic ideal of maleness propagated by the so-called Yakuza code, but also a playful way to show respect to the other and affirm the hierarchal structure that orients the subject and his yakuza-ego.
Another reason why the field of organized crime is changing and has changed in Japan is the introduction of the Organized crime exclusion ordinances which went into effect on October 10, 2011. As a result, many crime syndicates, in order to survive, started legalizing their businesses and cutting-out the violent threats from within (e.g. excommunicating those who strictly adhere to the traditional yakuza code). In other words, the yakuza forced the shedding of their old-fashioned pride surrounding the yakuza ideal of maleness to radically transform the gumi into an army of legitimate businessmen.
Of course, it is highly unlikely that those who were radically cut out of the yakuza fabric despite their adherence to the old ways will meekly accept their fate. Not long after his excommunication, ex-Oshima Kazuaki Ichikawa (Hisayoshi Hirayama) approaches Masayuki Araki to invite him into the new gumi he is setting up. The main reason for its formation is to burn down the Oshima clan, to destroy those who inflicted an imaginary injury to their ego shaped by yakuza ideals (Narra-note 1). In short, a war is brewing (Narra-note 2).
Joint does not forget to deliver some subtle societal critique on Japanese society. Ilyeong (Kim Chang-bak), a guy who works at the restaurant of Kil-Junghi (Kim Jin-cheol) fleetingly touches upon the fact that Japanese societal system allows Japanese subjects to exploit East-Asian foreigners for a cheap price but also that, when working more than legally allowed, immigration quickly resorts to deportation. In this way, Oudai Kojima does not only echo that the Japanese system forces certain types of people into illegality but also pushes some of them into the field of criminality. The formation of Ryudo, a criminal organisation made up by east-Asians and Africans, is without a doubt born from this exploitative reflex within Japanese societal field.
To bring his narrative visually alive, Oudai Kojima relies on crude dynamic camera movement and shaky framing. Kojima’s visual style, which echoes the style of the jitsuroku eiga, breathes realism into this fictional narrative. The crudeness of the composition reverberates, in a certain sense, the real physicality of the world in which the narrative takes place. The tremble of the camera transposes the reality of the spatiality to the fabric of the fictional story (Cine-note 1).
The slightly dull and darkish colour-palette and naturalistic lighting-design does not – as some spectators might assume – heighten the realism of Joint (Lightning-note 1). Rather these visual elements ensure that a sense of bleak fatalism lingers within the narrative’s atmosphere and allow a sense of tension blossom whenever it is necessary. The musical accompaniment further enhances this by echoing, in its own way, a certain forlornness and unavoidability. As a result, the fleeting moments of touching hopefulness and happiness (e.g. Kil-Junghi and Ilyeong expressing their thanks for Takeshi’s aid) end up echoing their own demise and radical destruction.
Joint proves, once again, that the yakuza genre is not dead and that, given the current societal constellation and the various currents within, engaging crime narratives can still be made. Oudai Kojima’s narrative will satisfy anyone who is a fan of yakuza films. Let us hope that this film is not the last that explores the interesting field of contemporary yakuza, crime, and their struggles.
Narra-note 1: The thirst for revenge is the reason why the new-formed family waits to register as an official Yakuza clan. Without official registration, they can use the element of surprise in their attempt to annihilate the so-called traitors of the yakuza ideal.
Narra-note 2: Their plan follows various steps. First, they’ll force those who exploit their business on turf they used to control to stop paying protection money to the Oshima Clan and instead pay them. Secondly, they’ll approach low-level thugs (dealers, gamblers, and scammers) without protection and take over their places.
Cine-note 1: The crude dynamism also helps emphasizing the roughness and crudeness of the violent encounters. In a certain sense, the dynamism as well as the sound-design allows the roughness of the violence to reverberate more sensible with the spectator.
Lightning-note 1: Some scenes, like the ones taking place within a bar or a club, are not marked by washed-out colours, but retain their dark moodiness by the way these visual moments contrast light and shadow.