Japan Cuts 2016: Ken and Kazu (Hiroshi Shoji)

by Jason Suzuki

Looking at a movie as a debut changes the way in which you see many aspects of the film. You're either more forgiving of its flaws or more aggressive towards them, thinking how dare they introduce themselves with more of the same. Hiroshi Shoji's debut Ken and Kazu has all of these freshman elements but it can't be ignored the promise of the career ahead of him when considering the middling early works of Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa who also worked in the crime genre in their toe dipping years.

 An expansion of the short he debuted in 2011, also called Ken and Kazu, the film follows two small time drug dealers who get pulled deeper into the crime underworld when the hot head of the two, Kazu (Katsuya Maiguma), allows his self-destruction get the better of him. Ken (Shinsuke Kato) wants out before the birth of his son but gets pulled into Kazu's gravitational pull. As seen here it seems like Shoji keeps the premise and the look of the film; consisting mainly of extreme close ups making use of shallow focus. This coupled with the handheld properly evoke the low-budget nature of the film which is always exciting and what a debut should have. The immediacy of it all helps it overcome most of the more familiar beats inherent to this type of story.

We soon find out that both of them have their reasons for risking their lives by sidestepping their boss for their own drugs deals in order to make more money. Ken wants to support his future family, which in turn is also why he wants to go straight, and Kazu has a Alzheimer's stricken mom who he wants to put in a home. These backstories become a major focus to the film. When Ken gets mugged he has a vision of his wife with their future newborn. Upset at his injuries signaling a return to crime, his wife accuses him of not keeping his family in mind when we know through visual means that he has, no matter how ill advised it all it.

While certain aspects of the film may get a pass due to the promise of a new filmmaker, there are moments that genuinely show promise. The film's climax is deftly handled, making full use of the film's visual style to properly convey a true moral dilemma and the burst of violence that comes from it. It's in these moments where much like Ken and his family, visions of Shoji's future career should flash in the audience's heads. This is joy of supporting emerging talents.

Ken and Kazu plays Saturday, July 23 at Japan Cuts 2016.

Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.