Tokyo Eyes director Jean-Pierre Limosin's documentary Young Yakuza (2007) ostensibly begins by following a pimple-faced, aimless 20 year old Naoki. His mother asks a family friend with "connections" if Naoki can begin an apprenticeship with the local yakuza. Yeah, sounds like a strange way to straighten out your layabout kid, get him into a crime gang, but from the way it sounds and even looks, it is like a year away at military school. Being an underling, he is kept away from any serious criminal activity, is forced into a new haircut, uniformed clothes (track jacket & coveralls!), and given the most menial of tasks, getting tea, scrubbing backs, cleaning up rooms, and lots and lots of standing around.
Early on in Young Yakuza I doubted its documentary authenticity. Though it has no narrator, no score, and a general doc aesthetic feel, it wasn't so much stylistic but a general behavioral impression. The way that people spoke to one another had a feeling of being forced and mannered. When Naoki has his first meeting with the elder gang leader Kumagai, the seemingly lone camera follows him in and observes from that one angle. Suddenly at the end of the conversation, it switches to two close ups for each man, at reverse angles, which means either two cameras were suddenly set up in the middle of the room, or one camera shot Kumagai speak, then was tediously turned around, locked down, refocused, relit, so that Naoki could give a reaction. In other words, it is clear that the film maker was wedging himself into the proceedings, he was making a shot, so the participates weren't left to casually be observed, they were also, if not steered, clearly self consciously concerned with their "roles" in the film.
But, lest you think this is some faux documentary or one with real people moved like pawns. If it was, I highly doubt that the film maker would have made to choice to lose his star in the middle of the film and never explain why. Yes, it is called Young Yakuza, yet our titular young yakuza disappears at almost exactly the halfway point. Despite the fact that Naoki resurfaces for one final bit at the end of the movie, cryptically explaining that he has moved on, we are never given the reason why he left the yakuza, why he never told anyone he was leaving, and why they couldn't track him down. Of course, it is a testament to Naoki's lack of personality that I didn't particularly miss him when he disappeared, but it was still nagging to not know and never be told why he absconded, though from the looks of things, one imagines he was just bored out of his mind.
That last fact just nails home how completely aimless this documentary is. It cannot be about a young man with a yakuza internship because he leaves the film midway through and they don't even capitalize on explaining this detail. It also cannot be about the crime aspect of the organization because, naturally, the yakuza are reluctant to divulge any of their sordid activities. The most they care to vaguely mention is that they are community businessmen who sometimes resort to violent methods when dealing with people.
So, what are we left with? Meetings. Lots of mannered meetings. Tedious meetings. Boring superficial formalities. Lots of bits where the yakuza try to come off as good guys- upset at members who attack civilians, glad to help out with crowd control at a local festival, honorable to their elders, hierarchy, and tradition, supportive of the wives whose hubbies have been locked away, etc. The one discussed bit of yakuza criminal antics they mention (again at a meeting) is about a gang member who was arrested because he beat up a deadbeat dad who wasn't helping out the poor young girl he impregnated. Kumagai initially looks like an engaging, enigmatic character worth following. He wears his sunglasses at night and carries himself with the rough stoicism and tinge of potential menace like a Kitano character. But, ultimately all he does is look tough, have mundane sit downs, and give simple, eventually monotonous, monologues about "the good old days."
The film also has little hip hop interludes with some young Japanese MC's spitting urban crime ryhmes about how hard it is on the street. It doesn't seem like Limosin was conscious of it but it certainly adds an unintentional(?) hilarity- some idealistic gansta' tales contrasted the real life captured boredom of yakuza having non event meetings and underlings fretting over how to meticulously present their boss his afternoon tea. THUG LIFE!
The DVD: Cinema Epoch.
Anamorphic Widescreen. Appears to be pretty basic pro end digital camera. No transfer quibbles really and the only minus marks can be attributed to the source flaws- general digital marring, bits of noise, muddy color, and low contrast.
2.0 Stereo. Japanese with optional English subtitles. Again, it is a documentary scoreless, so there isn't much to talk about in terms of mix. Rest assured, the track is mostly clear and well presented though not exactly dynamic.
The subtitles were fine, well-timed and fairly well translated. When Kumagai waxes philosophic, the word "milieu" popped up quite a bit and the term "way of life" seems to be a more literal, better choice.
Still Gallery, thats it.
While I certainly wouldn't say a rental is out of the question, I didn't see much to recommend. The disc is basic in presentation and doesn't have any significant extras. The film itself is lacking in any true insight. All we learn is that the yakuza are understandably guarded about their criminal activities and want to come across like a bunch of likable fellows with their own set of values and traditions. All we learn about a potential yakuza is that a modern kid would rather work with asbestos than be a low rung yakuza apprentice.