Hiroshi Shoji’s first feature Ken and Kazu concerns a pair of luckless gangster wannabes who viewers familiar with the tropes of indie crime cinema will immediately mark out as never-will-bes. What this tale of young thugs running amok on home turf lacks in originality is thoroughly compensated for by the blunt force of his seat-of-the-pants direction which strips away the melancholic romanticism associated with Japanese movies that deal with yakuza at various levels of underworld service.
Expanding on his 2011 short of the same name, Shoji focuses on the volatile friendship between Ken (Shinsuke Kato) and Kazu (Katsuya Maiguma), hoodlums who are scraping by from selling crystal meth around their patch of Ichikawa. Operating out of the struggling auto repair shop at which Ken works, they resort to beating up rival dealers in order to maintain their customer base, often roping in impressionable fellow mechanic Teru (Kisetsu Fujiwara) to help out. Ken wants to go straight and plans to start a new life with his pregnant girlfriend Saki (Shuna Iijima), but finds it hard to pull away from the volatile Kazu, who plans to expand their business by skimming from their boss Todo (Haruki Takano). For all his thuggish bravado, Kazu is not so much eager to advance through the ranks as desperate to take care of his mother, who is in the throes of dementia and needs to be moved into a care home. Flashbacks reveal that Kazu was abused by his mother as a child with his risky scheme to raise the cash that will at once provide for her care and lessen these painful memories by getting her out of his sight.
Shot on a presumably meagre budget using natural light with the occasional expressionistic flourish, this is a throwback of sorts to the quickly produced V-Cinema fare that provided a launch pad for the likes of Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, although its focus on male bonding through criminality echoes a run of American independent dramas that goes back to Martin Scorsese’s legendary Mean Streets (1973) right down to its use of breezy diegetic pop music to contrast with a world based on violence. As with many of its 1990s American cousins – Laws of Gravity (1992), Amongst Friends (1993), and Federal Hill (1994) spring to mind – Ken and Kazu is very much a ‘calling card’ feature designed to advertise Shoji’s abilities. The resourceful director makes the most of the viciously scrappy fight scenes and a burst of vehicular action to prove his mettle as a genre specialist – Piss and Vigour would be a fitting alternative title – but makes sure that the core relationship is never sidelined.
Although the difference in personalities between the level-headed Ken and the self-destructive Kazu make it difficult to see how they have sustained a long friendship (one assumes they have teamed up out of tough luck necessity), the edgy chemistry between the two leads thrives on this uncertain dynamic. Aware of the inherent predictability of his narrative, Shoji goes for full-on intensity with the increasingly out of their depth protagonists trapped in tight frames and the urgency of their situation conveyed through shaky camerawork which occasionally obscures not only the surprising subtlety of the performances but also the gritty, washed-out industrial texture of his chosen milieu.
As is usually the case with such macho melodrama, little attention is paid to female characters. The scenes concerning Ken and his girlfriend soon become tiresome as Saki is mostly on hand to give the young offender something to strive for or to berate him for making irresponsible choices. This domestic strand isn’t necessarily any more clichéd than the rest of the film, but Shoji keeps the dialogue between Ken and Kazu relatively sparse, focusing on their conflicting default facial expressions (Kato has the conflicted look down pat, while newcomer Maiguma already snarls like a Nikkatsu veteran in his copious close-ups) rather than rote verbal squabbling.
Shoji’s reliance on shopworn elements means that Ken and Kazu is unlikely to be the year’s most distinctly memorable directorial debut, but it’s certainly a jarringly raw ride around the back streets of contemporary Japan which should lead to bigger opportunities for this promising new talent.
Ken and Kazu receives its North American premiere as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film on Saturday July 23 at 2pm at Japan Society.