"Yakuza in Love" ("Ai Gokudo") is an absolutely brilliant film. Beautifully filmed, at times deep and poignant, at times comedic and acerbic, it is to the yakuza genre what Yamada Yoji's Samurai Trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor) was to the samurai genre. Both are respectful and subtle updates of genres of Japanese film that have almost degraded into parody through decades of repetition.
Director Mochizuki Rokuro has taken the completely opposite approach of director Miike Takeshi (Ichi the Killer) who also updated the genre. Instead of cool and slick ultra-violence, Mochizuki has channeled Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket), looking at the life of average people mixed up in violent circumstances, people who often make wrong choices and do stupid things, but still try to carve out some small slice of happiness in a harsh and unforgiving world.
The story focuses on Kinichi (Okada Eiji, Woman in the Dunes), a low-level thug who has been charged by his boss to murder rival ganglord Uzaki. Kinichi waits on stake-out with his "younger brother" Hamaoka (Matsuoka Shunsuke, Freeze Me), but his attention keeps drifting to a country-girl waitress Yoko (Natsuo Yuna, Wild Life) who works across the street. Kinichi leaves the job to Hamaoka, while he attempts to seduce with his own clumsy style. Not a gentleman by any means, Kinichi is not above slipping something into Yoko's drink to get her more in the mood. Hamaoka botches the assassination, as does Kinichi, and the three of them, Kinichi, Yoko and Hamaoka, flee Tokyo for Kinichi's native territory of Osaka, where they hope to hide out in the slums, deal a little drugs for a living, and stay away from Uzaki's revenge.
The setting of the film, in a particularly dangerous part of Osaka, has been used for previous yakuza love stories such as Happily Ever After. In a director's interview that is a bonus feature on this DVD, Rokuro says that filming was touch-and-go, and they were roughed up by local gangs who didn't want the attention brought to their territory.
The plot is not really the point of "Yakuza in Love". I have seen similar stories play out before. (Although I do have to say the ending took me by surprise). This film is much more of a character study, and the director plays with your emotions, flipping you back and forth between love and hate for Kinichi, who is at times a charming and honest fellow, and at times a monster. Yoko's purity is slowly tainted by her association with Kinichi, but she is overwhelmed by his love for her, and she finds family and friends in the direst circumstances. Hamaoka, an orphan, is loyal to his "older brother", even when such loyalty is undeserved and temptation pulls at him.
Aside from the acting, which is fantastic, Rokuro's pacing and use of music is also perfect, as he moves the story from scene to scene. Rokuro got his start in Japan's pink film industry, and his camera is sensual and lingering. He is not afraid to bring raw sexuality into his love story, and scenes between Kinichi and Yoko (who is breathtaking beautiful in these scenes) would not feel out of place in his previous career.