- Original title
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 110 minutes
- 4 September 2003
by Tom Mes
Not to be confused with Shinji Aoyama's Chinpira / Two Punks (1996), Coward (which played some festivals under its original Chinpira title) is one of the almost countless yakuza films turned out by the indefatigable Rokuro Mochizuki. Mochizuki is a man who should be far better known abroad than he actually is. Seemingly on the verge of a breakthrough in 1998/99, after a ten-film retrospective at the Rotterdam Film Festival and the heart- and skull-breaking gang drama Minazuki, he is one of the Japanese genre specialist undeservedly swept away by the tidal wave of uproar caused by the films of Takashi Miike.
In many ways, the two directors are comparable. Both slumming it in the V-cinema industry, churning out hardboiled yakuza flicks by the dozens, most of which are of more than above average interest, and show an undeniably original filmmaking talent at work. Mochizuki is not quite as insanely prolific as Miike, but he certainly comes close (he makes 'only' three films a year). The big difference between the two is that Mochizuki's work is a lot more difficult to fit into a 'cult' category. There are no sawed-off legs, exploding planets, dancing zombies, or men chopped in half in his films. And this is perhaps why he hasn't been singled out for cult reverence.
This is an extreme oversight, as anyone who has seen Another Lonely Hitman (Shin Kanashiki Hitman, 1995), the surreal Gedo: The Outer Way, or Onibi: The Fire Within (Onibi, 1995, one of the best Japanese films of the 90s) will attest. Straying from genre whenever he can, Mochizuki's work is frank, down-to-earth and resolutely physical. With an extensive background in pink film and porn, it's no surprise that Mochizuki is particularly interested in the role sex plays in defining the relationships between his characters. These scenes are candid without ever becoming exploitative, and the director usually manages to make them essential elements of the story he's telling.
So too in Coward, the story of bottom-rung yakuza Osamu, who spends his days sticking ads for phone sex lines in telephone booths and attempting to lure girls into prostitution. Hardly passionate about his work, he goes about it distractedly, caring little for yakuza conventions and frequently getting into scrapes with other chinpira. Despite having a girlfriend, Arimi, he is a loner at heart.
Saving a girl called Keiko from the clutches of his chinpira rivals one day, he lets her spend the night at his place. Arimi, however, is more than a bit jealous with the young woman's presence. That night she makes love to Osamu, moaning loudly to make sure Keiko hears her and understands that Osamu is Arimi's man. But neither Osamu nor Keiko is interested in jumping in the sack together. There's something else that drives the young gangster, but he doesn't realise what it is until Keiko is recaptured by the gang, turned into a heroin-dependent love slave for Osamu's own boss, and until he meets Yayoi, a 13-year old girl who tries to kill her cat on the beach. Doing the job for her, out of guilt for occupying the phone booth that would have allowed her to call a vet and save the animal, she tells him she is the daughter of a hooker and that she is looking to lose her virginity and make a lot of money in the process. Initially seeing nothing more than an opportunity, Osamu gives her his card and tells her he will look for a rich man who is willing to pay to deflower her. But as he sees Keiko slip further into drug hell, something begins to change in Osamu.
The character of Osamu essentially represents the fine line between humanity and corruption. The three women in his life eventually serve to remind him that he has strayed too far over that line. Arimi, a bar hostess, is as comfortably corrupted as he is, Keiko is corrupted before his very eyes and Yayoi is tempted by corruption. It's the little girl's flirtations with the darker side of life that eventually remind him of his own value as a human being and of the fact that he can still make a difference and create something good for once.
His protagonist's process of change is a good example of how Mochizuki uses sex as an essentially storytelling tool. There is the sex scene between Osamu and Arimi, which chases away Keiko from their house and into the arms of the yakuza. And there is the pivotal moment when his boss asks Osamu to replace him in having sex with the drugged-up Keiko, who the aging boss can no longer satisfy. He refuses at first, but when he sees that Keiko is irretrievably lost in her heroin haze, Osamu comes to the conclusion that if he can't save her, he can at least give her relief. It's this experience that makes him decide to save the young Yayoi from a similar fate.
As Osamu, genre veteran Kazuki Kitamura delivers a fine performance. An actor easily judged and perhaps dismissed on the basis of his looks, Kitamura deserves far more credit for his abilities as an actor. Often collaborating with Mochizuki, he's played a wide variety of roles, including the violence prone yakuza in Minazuki and Yoshio Harada's gay roommate in Onibi. Kitamura is certainly capable of hamming it up (see his cameo in 9 Souls), but he is equally able to play genuine human beings, as seen here and in for instance Takashi Miike's Ley Lines.