JOINT (Japan, 2020) [OAFF 2021]

Oudai Kojima’s debut feature JOINT may not do anything new with its story of gangsters, loyalty and betrayal, but it’s imbued with an atmosphere so strong that it plunges the viewer into the criminal milieu alongside a charismatic main character whose arc allows you to see every aspect of the underworld.

The story follows Takeshi Ishigami (Ikken Yamamoto), an ex-con aiming to leave his shady past behind. Before he can do that, he must return to a life of crime in Tokyo. Reacquainting himself with Yakuza contacts, he restarts his “list business.” It’s an innocuous name used to describe harvesting information for fraud schemes. Rather interestingly, Takeshi was more of a money man than a regular foot soldier, so he goes back to what he knows best with the intention of using the spoils to fund forays into venture capitalism. His path isn’t easy, but as he painstakingly climbs his way out of a life of crime, he attempts to drag his friends along. However, just as Takeshi thinks that he might really get out, he is dragged back in when a gang war erupts.

The drama surrounding the conflict is standard stuff but made compelling through its sense of verisimilitude when it comes to the world of the Yakuza and Takeshi’s precarious place in it. Takeshi’s story provides an interesting angle as he is an associate rather than a fully tatted up thug which enables Kojima to provide a detailed depiction of the business side. A smart and debonair guy who chooses not to use his fists, he is tolerated rather than accepted and his moneymaking abilities give him some leeway in terms of how he can act. This, as well as having been away in prison, logically allows exposition and plot set-ups through Takeshi’s catch-ups with friends and foes in different positions, which helps to contextualise the different factions and the stakes involved in the gang war. These scenes also give his relationships and decisions enough dramatic impetus to brush past any sense of cliché.

However, it’s in dealing with the heavier details of the “list business” where the film comes alive. Kojima delivers what feels like lessons on how the modern-day Yakuza work their scams and the confluence between big business and crime. Brief intertitles act as chapter headings as well as info-dumps. They are nimbly placed amidst major plot points and montages which show the harvesting of personal information like names, addresses, and numbers from used cellphones that lead to old folks getting scammed. These scenes ooze realism on the level of The Wire and are guaranteed to put viewers on edge while also making them feel informed and invested in proceedings, not least because of the way things are filmed.

Made on a budget of 5 million yen (just shy of 50,000 dollars), the film is realised with a faux-documentary, handheld aesthetic that makes it feel closer in tone to Steven Sodebergh’s Traffic (2000) than more meticulous-looking modern gangster films like Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage trilogy. Still, there is a sufficient precise framing, fast edits and eye-catching visuals to give this film theatrical oomph. Kojima definitely makes the most of the budget with multiple business and nightclub settings that have a steel-and-glass-and-stark-lighting look for the upmarket areas, traditional villas for Yakuza meetings, and the dingy business hotels and immigrant cafes for the working-class areas. When it comes to the action, Kojima opts for the painfully believable blunt force of punches and baton strikes delivered by a cast of guys who look like authentic bruisers and strung-out kids you would cross the street to avoid. 

And then we come to leading man Yamamoto. He has come out of nowhere to prove himself charismatic enough to carry this film. Handsome but with an edge, not to mention the swagger of a gambler, he can also handle the requisite soulful moments which mesh well with the film’s moments of moody lighting and atmospheric backdrops. He is a suitable companion to escort us through the crime world and we become invested in his journey. 

If there are any criticisms to level, it’s that a subplot involving the police is abruptly dropped and female characters are given the short shrift as they come in only one variety – gangster molls. Overall, these are minor faults as the rest of the film hits hard with its mix of works up an atmosphere and story that allows it to hit hard.

Many films flirt with the glamour and misdeeds of the Yakuza, but this one really immerses you in it. From the first distinctive shots, to its ironic ending, there is depth to both story and form, while the information conveyed to the viewer seems so realistic that it allows JOINT stand apart from other crime films. The actors are all perfectly cast and give compelling performances so that even if the film trots out familiar themes, it’s still a thrilling watch. 

JOINT was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 7.