For decades a staple of Nipponese straight-to-video “V-cinema,” biker-gang subculture gets a galvanizing bigscreen treatment in helmer Kazuyoshi Kumakiri “Blazing Famiglia.” A coming-of-ager baptized in blood and steeped in soulful midlife blues, the film reps an action aesthetic of savage masculine beauty that harks back to the golden age of yakuza films in the 1970s. Readers of the original 1999 manga by Hiroshi Tanaka will constitute the core aud for the pic’s September domestic rollout; Asian action markets will feel the heat as well.
Pic introduces mechanic Tetsu Hino (comedian Yoshimi Tokui), whose cluttered apartment; dismissive wife, Kiri (Chisun); and teenage son, Shuhei (Kento Hayashi), signal a washed-up life. One day, Tetsu is jolted from inertia by a brutal assault on Shuhei’s g.f., Makoto, also the daughter of his old friend Atsushi Yokota (Sadao Abe). He gathers his former bosozoku (delinquent biker pals) to exact rough justice on the young punks responsible, initiating Shuhei into the notorious world of his father, a member of east Japan’s most notorious biker gang, Shinsha.
A flashback to 1986 offers a breathless rundown of who’s who in the bosozoku world, and their endless internecine rumblings. With so much testosterone firing their cylinders, combustion seems inevitable, and when Tetsu’s fellow bikers accidentally kill the younger brother of Shinsha’s psychopathic leader, Watanabe (jazz drummer Tatsuya Nakamura), their second-in-command and hero, Natsume (Kazuki Kitamura), attempts to shield them from bloody payback, with tragic results. The rapid and confusing onslaught of characters and locations here hardly seems to matter as much as the style with which Kumakiri pays homage to Kinji Fukasaku’s iconoclastic “Battle Without Honor” series, with funky 1970s captions, propulsive, punchily edited action, and badass attitude.
The pic’s second half returns to the present day to deal with the psychological scars left by the shattering of romantic notions of honor and family personified by Natsume, even as Watanabe’s release from his long prison stint triggers a new crisis that makes several of the old gang run off the rails. The violence and bloodshed of these scenes retain the visceral quality of their retro 1980s counterparts, but the staging becomes increasingly surreal and overwrought. The protags’ hysteria accelerates, but dramatic momentum slows, as if the daredevil pugnacity of youth were souring into the desperation of middle-aged, dead-end lives.
Kumakiri, who subversively turned the bloodstained history of Japan’s United Red Army into an anarchic splatter film in his debut, “Kichiku,” here assuredly choreographs a hardboiled mainstream actioner, his exploration into factionalism having gained gravitas over that earlier work’s juvenile irreverence. Few characters in the large, ensemble cast come into focus sharply enough to fully realize the manga’s original concept of the gang as a surrogate family. Nevertheless, the helmer displays subtlety on a smaller scale, as he sympathetically draws out the fraught relationship between Tetsu and Shuhei, bringing it to a moving reconciliation in the final scene.
Making his thesping debut, Tokui gives a serious, nuanced turn that belies his origins in standup comedy. Supporting cast members, afforded little emotional range, strike cool poses. Nakamura, in particular, leaves his mark by conveying the chilling pathology of someone who doesn’t register pain (his own or others’) in scenes of self-mutilation.
Dusky lighting and stylishly grungy production design reinforce the pic’s butch image. Makeup and costume design have a grotesque expressionism that captures the manga’s spirit.