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Originally published Friday, May 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Young Yakuza" takes a hit when reality intervenes

Contemporary documentaries rise or fall on the "cooperation" of reality. You find a story full of promise and hope that story will unfold...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

"Young Yakuza," a documentary directed by Jean-Pierre Limosin. 99 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains brief nudity, mild language). In Japanese with English subtitles. Grand Illusion.

Contemporary documentaries rise or fall on the "cooperation" of reality. You find a story full of promise and hope that story will unfold with all the beats and rhythms of a compelling screenplay. Sometimes you strike gold (as happened with "Murderball"), and your subject matter reveals unexpected layers of depth and surprise. In "Young Yakuza," reality throws a curveball that forces French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Limosin to improvise, and the film flounders.

There's only so much that Limosin can do when his central character goes AWOL.

He begins, promisingly enough, with a quiet conversation between a concerned mother and an old family friend, who's a member of the local yakuza clan. Worried that her 20-year-old son, Naoki, is stuck in an increasingly shameful pattern of street-punk behavior, Mrs. Watanabe takes her friend's advice and reluctantly allows Naoki to begin a one-year apprenticeship with the Kumagai clan, one of many in Tokyo's clandestine yakuza network of organized crime.

There's twisted logic to the idea that Naoki will learn "good manners and perseverance" as a yakuza initiate. It's a productive "milieu" (as boss Kumagai calls it) for an aimless kid like Naoki, despite Kumagai's candid assurance that Naoki will "see many things" during his apprenticeship — and "they will not all be positive."

Limosin was allowed to spend 18 months with the Kumagai clan, on the condition that illegal activities would be kept off-screen. That turns "Young Yakuza" into a casual study of routine yakuza hierarchy, as Naoki performs a variety of mundane tasks designed to preserve and enforce his boss' patriarchal supremacy.

As it turns out, however, reality refuses to work in Limosin's storytelling favor. When Naoki decides the yakuza life is not for him, he suddenly disappears, and "Young Yakuza" never recovers from this unexpected development.

Boss Kumagai reflects upon Naoki's "betrayal," but he decently declines to retaliate. As "Young Yakuza" shifts its focus to the legal troubles of a new and mostly unseen protagonist, Kumagai expresses his sad realization that yakuza in modern Japan are essentially an endangered species, with little to offer Japan's disaffected youth. To that end, Limosin punctuates the film with nihilistic hip-hop from a pair of teenage Tokyo rappers; this adds nothing to a film that eventually loses its groove.

It's fascinating to witness authentic hints of the yakuza life we've seen in Japanese crime dramas, including such details as the application of elaborate body tattoos or the precision of tea-serving procedures for boss Kumagai. But apart from its attentive study of yakuza servitude, "Young Yakuza" offers only limited insight into Naoki's character, the inner workings of the "Japanese mafia" and its struggle for contemporary relevance.

Ultimately the viewer is left in the same bind as the filmmakers: wishing we'd been able to follow Naoki's apprenticeship to its traditional conclusion and beyond.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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