Existential tales of hitmen and their observations from the shadows have hardly been absent from Japanese cinema yet Masahiro Kobayashi’s Film Noir (AKA Koroshi, 殺し) perhaps owes as much to Fargo as it does to Le Samouraï. Taking place in the frozen, snow covered expanses of Northern Japan, Kobayashi’s story is an absurdist one filled with dispossessed salarymen leading empty, meaningless lives in the wake of late middle age redundancy.
Hamazaki starts us off with a very Film Noir style voice over in which he likens being alive to be trapped on a long coach tour with strangers. You may fight and scream and argue with them right the way through, but in the end you will crave their understanding. Like many men of the era following the recent economic turbulence, he’s lost his job and, being a cowardly if kindly soul, he’s too afraid to tell his wife about it. Consequently he leaves for work everyday as normal but drives to a near by strip mall and wastes the day away playing pachinko. That is until one fateful morning when he finds the entire area deserted only for a mysterious man to climb uninvited into his car.
This unnamed man has a business proposition for Hamazaki – kill a guy, get a lot of money. As anyone would be, Hamazaki is a little shocked, confused and uncertain but eventually accepts. His first hit (like all of his subsequent hits) is on a man just like him – a middle aged loser who’s lost his job and is hiding out in the pachinko parlour hoping to figure something out before he runs out of money. Hamazaki likes his new line of work, it makes him feel like a man again and even helps him rebuild a bond with his wife (or so he thinks) but when he discovers one of his targets is someone he knows it all starts to go wrong.
Amusingly, the mysterious man gives Hamazaki a number of videos to watch as a kind of instructional guide to killing which includes a fair few from Melville including Army of Shadows and other classics of shady French cinema. This is a well worn tale and we know it isn’t going to end well for Hamazaki but we can also see from his voiceover that he’s consistently at odds with the situation as it is almost as if he’s constructing a film noir-esque reality all of his own.
Hamazaki is an unlikely fit for this kind of work – all the way through he’s berated for being “too nice”, notably in an argument with his former boss towards the end and then again by his wife who, it seems, cares more for her social standing and middle class lifestyle than she does for her kindhearted husband. The couple have a teenage daughter whom they’ve sent abroad to study in America (presumably at great expense) and only seems to contact them to ask for more money. Though she’s apparently only in high school, they seem to treat their daughter with a high level of adulthood – sending the money for her to budget with by herself (the implication is that she runs through quite a bit) and her mother even takes care to remind her of the importance of using a condom (not just the pill – America is the AIDS hub of the world, apparently) which is obviously good advice from an enlightened parent but perhaps a surprisingly frank way of talking to a teenage girl.
In many ways Hamazaki is a man without a place. Now he’s lost his job he’s become quite useless to just about everyone. As the mysterious man tells him, everyone is playing a role, in that case “killer” and “prey” but as it transpires Hamazaki was playing a role all along – that of salaryman husband and father. The couple seem happy, but in having sent their daughter overseas the Hamazakis have already broken their happy family in favour of increasing their social status. Kazuko is perhaps only playing the role of the middle class housewife and may have little use for a man who proves too soft hearted to get ahead. After Hamazaki tragically declares he wants to give up the life of a contract killer because he’s realised the importance of family, he may find that “family” had long ago abandoned him.
In this deserted, snow covered town the hearts of men are as cold as the wind that blows through the depressingly empty expanses. A man’s worth is measured by the money he makes and status he can claim, a man with no job is worth nothing at all. No love, no family, no morality – this is the archetypal film noir world filled with nothing but eternal darkness despite the bright sunshine which bounces lightly off the crisp white snow. As much about the death of the spirit as it is about the taking of life, Film Noir paints an eerily bleak picture of modern society with its rigid social codes which prize only the acquisition of money and status rather than the contents of a man’s soul.