Stream It Or Skip It: ‘A Family’ on Netflix, Tracking A Yakuza Gangster’s Search For Self-Fulfillment

A Family (Netflix), from writer and director Michihito Fujii, is a subdued blend of yakuza genre filmmaking and familial drama, exploring the bonds of companionship for those living outside of societal norms — orphaned gangsters, crime bosses in their insulated lairs, and red light district workers who just want something more, for something in life to matter.  


The Gist: 1999. Late to his father’s funeral, Kenji Yamamoto (Go Ayano) wears his bleach blonde mop with apathy and bloody knuckles with misplaced bravado. Aimless, and with no family left, Kenji commits penny ante crime on the streets of industrial Aichi prefecture, and eventually drifts into the orbit of local yakuza boss Shibazaki (Hiroshi Tachi), a gallant, old-school gangster with the usual coterie of flunkies in garish suits. Shibazaki takes “Lil Ken” under his wing, and before long it’s 2005, and the former street punk has emerged as a trusted lieutenant. Kenji is devoted to the paternal Shibazaki, and his fellow yakuza are his de facto family. The gangster life has given him purpose, but there’s still torment inside his soul.

Shibazaki’s gang has a part of the graft in town, and a rival yakuza group controls another. It’s the usual chest-thumping and territorial quarrelling, with the law, led by Osako (Ryo Iwamatsu), as grudging intermediary. The cops and the city want the yakuza elements gone, and a burgeoning economy is squeezing their traditional means of generating income. Turf battles and tough talk lead to an attempt on Shibazaki’s life, a transgression Kenji cannot abide by, and he takes the fall for the murder of a rival henchman, even as he’d finally found a woman who’d tolerate and push back against his brusque nature. Yuka (Machiko Ono) is left only to watch a news report about Kenji’s arrest.

Flash forward 15 years. Kenji did his bit and kept his mouth shut, but he’s back on the outside to discover a landscape wholly changed. The boss is a shell, dying of cancer, and the yakuza are dying off, too. “The laws around cell phone contracts make buying a phone a pain for yakuza,” an underling tells Kenji. The clubs they once ran are closed; society has moved on. And so has Yuka, though she’s ashamed to admit she still carries a torch for her mobster true love. Kenji, now an outcast, wanders the streets as a gangster without a home, without criminal means, and worse, without his adopted family. “I thought about dissolving it,” his boss, his surrogate father, tells Kenji from his hospital bed. “But for the guys who can only live as yakuza, who would be willing to save them? In the end, duty and honor can’t beat money.”  

What Movies Will It Remind You Of? As yakuza genre films go, Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage trilogy, beginning with the first film in 2010, is fascinating in its manner of subverting the standards of the style while at the same time elevating the formative parts. The 2017 film Lost Girls & Love Hotels, meanwhile, offered a different take on companionship amongst people shut out by Japanese society, not only yakuza gangsters but expatriates and unmarried professional women. 

Performance Worth Watching: Go Ayano (Rage) carries A Family wonderfully, effectively transporting Kenji’s quaking internal self from late-1990’s street punk through 2000’s suited up Yakuza soldier and onward to 2015, when he’s the last gangster standing in a world that’s moved on from his ilk. Ayano adopts a deceptive hangdog stance for Kenji, with only the occasional brush of a grin across his standard mask of dejected indifference. But we see his sense of honor, and feel it when it’s trampled on. 

Memorable Dialogue: Osako, the Organized Crime Bureau detective who is a deft, cynical player of both sides, tells the fatherly boss Shibazaki how it is, and how it’s going to be. “It is no longer just the role of the police and the law to punish the Yakuza. The entire world will exterminate you.” 

Sex and Skin: The Yakuza are washing in a bath house, their irezumi tattooing on full display in this private place, away from society, among their criminal family.

Our Take: “How do the yakuza live? Why do they wear sunglasses at night? Call each other ‘boss’ and ‘brother’ like that? I never thought I’d meet the real thing.” Kenji likes Yuka because she freely chides his self-serious nature, and the trappings of gangsterdom. She isn’t intimidated, and instead offers him what he’s always craved: true kindness, and a regular-type life. Sure, Kenji found a father of sorts in the form of Shibazaki, but even the boss understands that the yakuza gang’s familial structure is largely a falsehood, a lie constructed to justify the criminal’s place in the social hierarchy. And when Kenji discovers that contemporary society has moved on from organized crime, it’s the purity and promise Yuka represents that Kenji is most ashamed of staining. In its last section, as the defrocked gangster walks the streets as a pariah, the notes A Family has been playing since the beginning become the most resonant.

Michihito Fujii’s film might heap on the sentiment, but it also doesn’t shy away from the jarring violence that’s a yakuza genre hallmark. Brandished baseball bats and knives plunged into stomachs accompany the criminal element as much as their ever-present cigarettes and rings of acrid smoke. Equating these two sides — a life of crime versus everyday existence — Fujii uses the landscape of industrial Japan as a binding agent, framing smokestacks as forlorn towers to progress, and employs tons of natural light to lend internal spaces a sense of confinement longing to be free. The bonds of family, formed and broken and formed again, are conveyed here with a wonderful feel for how sacred and fragile those bonds truly are.  

Our Call: STREAM IT. While A Family is steeped in yakuza genre machismo, Michihito Fujii’s film is really a meditation on the concept of family as a basic human need.

Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges

Watch A Family on Netflix

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