Production Company: Taki Corporation, Tsuburaya Eizo
Release: 21 December 1996
Length: 100 min.
Format: 35 mm; 1:1.85
Director: Aoyama Shinji
Producers: Kai Naoki, Nagasawa Katsuaki, Okagawa Akimoto
Screenplay: Kaneko Shoji, Morioka Toshiyuki
Photography: Ishii Isao
Music: Ayukawa Makoto
Art Director: Nitta Takayuki
Editor: Onaga Masahiro
Fujikawa Yoichi: Osawa Takao
Umezawa Michio: Dankan
Nagasaki Yuko: Kataoka Reiko
Miya: Aoyama Chikako
Otani: Ishibashi Ryo
Masao: Terashima Susumu
Punks Having Identity Crisis
Played by the likes of Tsuruta Koji, Takakura Ken or Sugawara Bunta, yakuza in movies are usually made-of-steel, superhuman macho heroes who coldly stare death in the face and fight for honor and gang tradition. If these heroes express emotion, it is within the confines of the melodrama of duty versus friendship, of emotional excess repressed by obligation and the demands of being a man.
The two gangsters featured in Aoyama Shinji’s new film Chinpira/Two Punks effectively reject this identity by refusing to formally enter a gang and become a yakuza. They remain “chinpira,” punks who live on the fringes of the gangster world without ever receiving from the boss the traditional sake cup that makes them official gang members.
Looking like a third-rate salary man, the slightly dumpy Michio (Dankan) has reached his mid-thirties without ever joining the mob, confessing fear about life as a yakuza. Yoichi (Osawa Takao), the wild country boy from Shikoku he recruits, fits in better with that violence-prone world. But he is both too unruly to accept rigid gang hierarchies and too uncontrollable to go straight.
The two run an illegal bookie joint on behalf of the gangster Otani (Ishibashi Ryo). But far from accepting the rules of the gang, Yoichi steals Yoko (Kataoka Reiko) away from Otani’s lieutenant Masao (Terashima Susumu). And against his own better judgement, Michio gets Otani’s woman Miya (Aoyama Chikako) pregnant. The film speeds towards a violent conclusion when Otani is assassinated by a junkie and Michio, his pride hurt and hoping for a better life, absconds with Miya and the gang’s money.
Two Punks is based on a script written by the legendary Kaneko Shoji that was first filmed in an altered form by Kawashima Toru under the title Chinpira in 1984, after Kaneko’s death. While treating the same themes as Aoyama’s version, the 1984 film, with it’s tacked-on happy ending and slick stylistics, was half a heartrending buddy film and half a disco Saturday Night Fever.
Two Punks is more true to the original, though both Aoyama and scriptwriter Morioka Toshiyuki have added their own touches. What makes the film stand out is Aoyama’s stylistic choices: his refusal to pull emotional heart-strings or glorify the gangster life and instead maintain his distance with a masterful long-take aesthetics and a complex, nonlinear narrative.
Yet this is not the brutally unemotional world of Kitano Takeshi, to whom Aoyama, sharing some of the same actors and motifs, has been compared. Takeshi’s dead pan characters disturb us to the degree their expressions reveal no inner fear, to the extent they are externalized, inhuman masks who can arbitrarily shift from comedy to violence in the blink of an eye.
Aoyama’s gangsters are more inextricably mired in the grit and grime than defines being human. From Michio with his constant stomach aches to Otani refraining from kicking a pregnant Miya, these characters experience fear, love, and frustration that are all too real.
It is Aoyama’s genius that none of this slides into the mold of yakuza melodrama. One can say his decision to refrain from editing, from adding sound in crucial scenes, or from providing an easy-to-understand, linear narrative all strip the characters of contrivances, allowing them to reveal their inner emotions bit by bit by themselves. It is thanks to the excellent cast that this succeeds marvelously in the end.
The nucleus of the world of Chinpira/Two Punks is precisely the frustration and freedom of not fitting into these set patterns, of existing on the border of such categories as yakuza and straight, town and country. The circular motif, which represented the cruelty of the world in Takeshi’s Kids Return, functions here as the inability to maintain such fixed identities or directions.
Aoyama has been busy for a neophyte director. Since he debuted as a director last year, he has already megaphoned two made-for-video movies, his first feature film Helpless, and now Two Punks. After viewing the latter, one eagerly awaits his third feature, which he has reportedly already finished shooting.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 21 December 1996, p. 9.
Copyright 1996: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow