A wayward Japanese youth’s apprenticeship with the Nipponese mafia provides an intriguing premise but little substance in French docu “Young Yakuza.” Like Japan’s other cultural touchstone, the geisha, the Yakuza have found expression in both Japanese and Western movies seeking to reveal arcane practices and strict hierarchy, but have remained veiled in secrecy. Pic observes rather than delves. Due to no fault of the filmmaker, docu loses direction due to an absconding protagonist. Fests may want to take a peek, but a lack of meat will disappoint.
At docu’s beginning, concerned mother Mrs. Watanabe considers a proposal from a friend that she hand over her unemployed, criminally disobedient son, Naoki, to the local yakuza gang boss in order to mold her boy into a more disciplined and useful member of society.
With nothing else to do, 20-year-old acne-faced Naoki agrees to begin a 12-month engagement with the Kumagai clan (or gumi) of Tokyo’s Shinagawa district. Boss of the clan is Mr. Kumagai. With a face like a battered Noh mask, the gang boss explains that circumstances are getting tougher for the yakuza now that, with police encouragement, shopkeepers and businesses are successfully banning gangsters from their premises. Kumagai further laments that recruitment is a problem because discipline is out of fashion with young Japanese and that unpaid servitude is a distinct disincentive.
After a casual job interview with Kumagai-san, Naoki is issued a tracksuit uniform and ordered to get a haircut. Initial indoctrination involves the right procedure on how to prepare and deliver the boss’s tea. Pic tentatively shows glimpses of the tattooed gang members (most spectacularly in the bathhouse scenes) and the full array of mundane duties Naoki is expected to perform — from housework to nightclub security.
Months later, at docu’s three-quarter point, having gained the gang leader’s trust, Naoki is given a day off when his (unseen) uncle is ill even though his colleagues are busy offering crowd control backup to Tokyo police during a Shinto festival. In a manifestation of every documaker’s nightmare, Naoki goes missing. Kumagai speaks of his conflicted feelings of betrayal and parental inadequacy, but has no real interest in tracking his missing protege.
Likewise, the helmer turns his attentions to the legal problems of a fully fledged yakuza who has beaten up an ordinary citizen, but as this new protagonist remains off-camera due to his arraignment in jail, the pic never really recovers.
Part of the dilemma is inherent in Kumagai-san’s perimeters for involvement in the doc. As he explains, Yakuza are involved in legitimate businesses but also exist in parallel to mainstream Japanese society.
There’s a line that separates their “shadow world” from wider society and the gang boss emphatically states he will not allow the film to cross that line.
Consequently, though intriguing, docu offers little more than a superficial glimpse of the yakuza realm. Instead, the film relies heavily on exoticism that allows the recording of intriguing images without revealing anything of depth or significance.
Helmer does himself no favors by letting the film run to 99 minutes, as the rudderless narrative brutally exposes the padding. Naoki appears once more at the film’s ending, but the reasons for and his activities during his absence remain unexplained.
For a docu, lensing in 35mm is a luxury, but the film’s appearance could easily be mistaken for lower-quality stock. Music by Japanese rappers aims to string sequences together with gangsta street cred, but is ineffectual.