The debut feature of New York-based filmmaker Oudai Kojima, Joint takes the structure of a rise-and-fall gangster picture and tries to imbue it with procedural details and a documentary-style immediacy. It’s mostly successful, although the diffuse narrative and sizable number of characters constantly threaten to get away from the filmmakers. After a two-year prison sentence, Takeshi Ishigami (Ikken Yamamoto, in an impressively modulated performance) has been released. Working a dead-end construction job to save money, he eventually moves back to Tokyo with the help of best friend, Yasu, and starts drumming up business with his old Yakuza buddies. Never a full-fledged member, Ishigami sees the Yakuza as a way to make quick money that he can use to break into legitimate enterprises. But the Yakuza has changed while he’s been away — constant police pressure has led them to excommunicate the more violent factions within their ranks and focus on quieter, more subtle criminal enterprises. To that end, Ishigami joins forces with young up-and-comer Yuki to run phone scams on unsuspecting citizens. Realizing that they don’t have enough data to zero in on potential victims, Ishigami calls on Jung-hi, a Korean ex-pat who helps immigrants find work, legal or otherwise, to get more robust data packages scraped from discarded cell phones. It’s a distinctly 21st-century enterprise, a long way from the ferocious bloodbaths of something like Battles Without Honor and Humanity, and the money starts rolling in hand over fist. Soon enough, Ishigami is laundering cash through real estate deals and investing in dot-com startups and venture capital funds.
Shot mostly in shaky handheld, with a muted palette drained of color and a shallow depth of field that tends to surround characters in blurry smears of light a la Michael Mann, Kojima organizes a huge amount of information in Joint. But after a propulsive first half, where we are walked through various schemes and rivalries in exacting detail, the film gradually loses its bearings. There’s just too much plot: a clan of former Yakuza members decides to go back to the old, violent ways, police be damned, and begin a turf war. Meanwhile, Ishigami begins distancing himself from both Yuki and Jung-hi in an attempt to go fully legit, alienating both of them in the process. And yet another rival organization is introduced, the Ryudo, composed of various immigrant groups who have been shunned by traditional organized crime, and who have their own uses for the data packets that Ishigami has been peddling. In fact, there’s an entire subplot about the police officers monitoring the various clans which dropped almost as soon as it’s introduced, and numerous characters pop up in a scene or two only to then disappear for large swaths of the film. There are numerous scenes of Ishigami working with the startup that he’s invested in, until potential investors learn about his criminal record and start threatening to withhold future funding. It all just eventually amounts to too much, the narrative becoming more and more fractured and slackening when it should be throttling up. Eventually, a friend is killed and Ishigami has to decide just how far outside the law he’s willing to go for revenge. There’s a fascinating thread here about the intersection between illicit and legitimate business, and how both are built on harvesting the same information, but it too gets lost amid the shuffle. It might be a brave new world, but Joint disappointingly ends with the same old questions about honor among thieves and avenging fallen brothers.
Published as part of NYAFF 2021 — Dispatch 3.