4 out of 5
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Chuji tends bar at the club; casually tosses in on fights; saunters about busy streets to do some low-level drug dealing. As portrayed by Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, he’s got a wonderfully eye-wide look, green but not dumb; aimless, but not necessarily undriven. Intercut into our opening are blasts of violence featuring yakuza member Kenji (Seiichi Tanabe). Kenji’s feral to Chuji’s calm, but both have a certain detachment to them, though the former is doing more calculating behind his reserved look, while the latter is a Miike “rootless” character (as per Tom Mes); precisely edited scenes give us his broken-family background without dwelling or expositing.
When Kenji stumbles into an alleyway for Chuji is smoking, Chuji lies to cover up his presence to some opposing yakuza family members searching for Kenji, and the two become friends.
Things seem to be going well, with the two’s separate paths sharpening up on their own trajectories: Chuji gets a girlfriend; joins a band that gives him some direction. Kenji is masterminding a power coup, the pieces coming together exactly as planned. Occasional interactions between Chuji and Kenji give them both indirect guidance to continue the way they’re going.
If this movie were not a Takashi Miike film, we would be focused exclusively on Kenji. His secret scheming to takeover his family is a typical yakuza tale, including the double-crossing that inevitably leads to violence. But this is a Miike movie, and so it’s Chuji’s film first, paralleled to Kenji: the whole first portion of the flick floats along with its protagonist, rather happy-go-lucky. Entire songs are performed in Chuji’s bar, and we watch the crowd bounce along with them. And the stereotypical “masculine” role of yakuza are challenged: Kenji harbors feelings for Chuji; the scenes wherein we’d normally get “money shots” of female nudity are replaced by a brilliantly shot crosscutting showing how sex is used, in the yakuza context, for manipulative means.
Eventually, we must get to a crux, and while it is because Kenji’s plans go wrong, the weaving in of Chuji to this is heart-rending; the conclusion of the film tragic, but with a quiet and perfect moment of hope.
Blues Harp is another wonderfully understated, confident Miike entry. Some of the club scenes early on, with the full songs, could have perhaps been excised, and there’s occasional overreach for emotion on Ikeuchi’s and Tanabe’s behalves – these are both understated characters, so when they’re required to step it up a bit, it doesn’t quite sync. These are both very minor issues, though, in a movie that’s otherwise very, very rich and layered throughout, turning a “simple” yakuza tale into something wholly heavy in the best of ways.