I was quite surprised when I accidentally happened upon this film some time ago. I'm a pretty big fan of Kazuyoshi Kumakiri's films and I do love watching a good Japanese high school brawler, but I had never even heard of Blazing Famiglia [Bakugyaku Famîria]. Somehow the film had managed to remain completely under the radar (my radar that is) for a decade at least. I went in a little unsure of what to expect but was happily surprised to find a prime Kumakiri film that seamlessly blends the inherent silliness of the genre with his signature penchant for darker, edgier cinema.
It might help to be familiar with this niche though, as the mix of genres and particular elements may not make all that much sense at first glance. Blazing Famiglia is a film that fits in with the Crows Zeros, Blue Springs and High & Lows of this world, though the setting is just a little less explicit (and doesn't feature criminal school gangs, but young motorbike delinquents). Within this world of stylized comic book violence, Kumakiri finds equal amounts of grit and drama, which at times compete with the crazier crime elements. He balances them off quite well, but unless you know what Kumakiri is actually balancing, you might be more than a little confused about what this film is trying to do.
In that sense, Blazing Famiglia is not unlike Toyoda's Crows Zero 3, trying to bring a little realism to a world that is inherently unrealistic. I will say this is not exactly my favored approach (as I prefer films that lean into their core strengths), but since Kumakiri's dramas tend to be a little extra too, it's not as big of a shift as you may expect. Instead of exploiting character quirks and looks, the film digs a little deeper into their backgrounds and uses the drama it finds there to steer the crime and action scenes. While it's not always perfectly executed, it does bring something new to the table.
Tetsu Hino was once the leader of a feared and respected motorcycle gang, now he's a middle-aged man who has lost the respect of his wife and son. As he wonders why and where his life went wrong, he is contacted by an old gang member. The guy's daughter was assaulted and lies wounded in the hospital. The attacker is an old acquaintance of Tetsu, someone who has held a grudge against him since forever. Tetsu's old fire rekindles and he vows to take revenge, using his newly found goal in life to prove to his son that he isn't just some common loser.
If you like Kumakiri's grittier visuals, you're going to have a blast with this one. The cinematography can come off a little dark at times, certainly without a proper HD release available, but the framing is superb, the styling hits that Japanese punk/biker gang vibe right where it needs to, and the film looks appropriately grainy. The visuals also help to maintain the balance between crime drama and over-the-top comic book adaptation, which isn't an easy feat. But to be honest, I didn't expect anything less from Kumakiri.
The soundtrack is also an asset, though possibly a bit more modern than most people might be expecting. It's still pretty punk in nature, without resorting to that older Japanese punk/rock vibe too often. That means you'll be getting heavier rock music with some gritty hip-hop influences thrown in, which go very well with the setting and characters, without being too obvious or feeling too generic. It's a nice soundtrack for sure, not the most original or notable selection of tracks, but it strengthens the atmosphere and gives the film a bit more of an edge, which fits the brief.
The performances are very much on point too, but that's pretty much a given when watching a Kumakiri film. They're not exactly subtle or nuanced, this is after all a film about violent gang members wrapped up in a generation-long feud, but there are moments when the drama is allowed to shine, and the actors don't let these opportunities go to waste. There are some bigger names present (like Nao Omori and Sadawo Abe), but it's the relative newcomers (like Yoshimi Tokui and Kento Hayashi) who leave the biggest impression. Apart from Jun Murakami that is, who steals the show as the messed-up villain (always the best part in films like these).
Because the film spans quite a few decades, works with flashbacks and doesn't immediately give away its presise nature, it did take me a little while to understand where Kumakiri was going with this. I can imagine it's worse for people less familiar with the tropes and genre elements this film was founded on. But 30 or so minutes in, the framework becomes pretty clear and the film starts to hurl itself towards its inevitable finale. I had a lot of fun getting there, as there are some neat twists and turns along the way, but people who remain lost throughout the movie might be having a harder time with Blazing Famiglia.
Kazuyoshi Kumakiri has no doubt made peace with the fact that he'll never get the international recognition he deserves. Whatever he seems to try, his particular brand of gritty, heightened drama mixed with edgy genre elements doesn't seem to be selling well overseas. That doesn't mean the talent isn't there of course . Blazing Famiglia looks appropriately gritty, it sports a fine soundtrack, some great performances and a cool plot with a proper dramatic foundation. It's a little niche and may come off a tad inaccessible at first, but give in to what Kumakiri serves and you might discover a little underseen gem.