Made shortly after his 1996 debut, "Helpless," director Shinji Aoyama's second theatrical feature, "Two Punks," again centers on a young drifter almost casually drawn into yakuza violence, who this time teams with a gentle-natured, self-confessed coward. More given to quiet reflection than to the genre's customary fireworks, this soulful drama about two men equally ill-equipped for criminal life and straight society confirms Aoyama as an up-and-coming talent and is ideal for programming in new-director showcases. The original script was one of four left behind by director Shoji Kaneko when he died soon after the release of his 1993 film "Ryuji," which broke with tradition in its intimate portrait of a yakuza as a troubled family man.
Filmed previously in a free adaptation by Toru Kawashima, “Two Punks” reportedly is more faithful to Kaneko’s original intentions in Aoyama’s new version, a disillusioned portrait of the mob as the realm of losers dreaming of another life.
Arriving in Tokyo from his island home, Yoichi (Takao Osawa) meets somewhat older Michio (Dankan), who gets him a job in the yakuza-owned nightclub where he works. A country boy with guts but no grasp of big-city rules, Yoichi immediately makes an enemy of club manager Matsuo (Susumu Terashima), at the same time impressing mob boss Otani (Ryo Ishibashi) with his courage. While Michio bows to Matsuo’s authority, Yoichi is flagrantly disrespectful of him. Intervening when he sees Matsuo mistreating his lover, Yuko (Reiko Kataoka), Yoichi gets a knife wound and a discarded gangster’s moll for his troubles.
Recruited by Otani to collect gambling debts, Yoichi and Michio witness the absence of passion between the boss and his girl, Miya (Chikako Aoyama). Moving in on Michio, Miya confides in him that Otani is a junkie, driven to drugs by his increasing lack of nerve.
As Yuko starts pressuring Yoichi to quit the gangster’s life and take her out of Tokyo, Michio gets similar ideas for himself and Miya, who is pregnant with his child. Dipping into mob funds to finance their escape, Michio takes off with Miya to his seaside hometown. Fresh out of prison and now a senior family member, Matsuo goes after Michio while Yoichi tries to warn him.
Characters are well observed and affectingly played, making the fairly unexceptional gangster story considerably more compelling than it might have been in other hands. Unmotivated and amateur as he basically is, Yoichi has natural pluck that makes up for his inexperience, leading him in over his head; Michio is fully aware of being too soft for the tough milieu, and Otani’s apparent ruthlessness covers a vulnerability that eventually makes him an easy target.
Isao Ishii’s languid camera and cool compositions, and Makoto Ayuakawa’s sudden bursts of heavy guitar help shape the somber mood in contrasting ways.