Enfant terrible of the Japanese film industry Sion Sono has always been prolific but recent times have seen him pushing the limits of the possible and giving even Takashi Miike a run for his money in the release stakes. Indeed, Takashi Miike is a handy reference point for Sono’s take on Shinjuku Swan (新宿スワン) – an adaptation of a manga which has previously been brought to the small screen and is also scripted by an independent screenwriter rather than self penned in keeping with the majority of Sono’s directing credits. Oddly, the film shares several cast members with Miike’s Crows Zero movies and even lifts a key aesthetic directly from them. In fact, there are times when Shinjuku Swan feels like an unofficial spin-off to the Crows Zero world with its macho high school era tussling relocated to the seedy underbelly of Kabukicho. Unfortunately, this is somewhat symptomatic of Sono’s failure, or lack of will, to add anything particularly original to this, it has to be said, unpleasant tale.
Our “hero” is down on his luck loser Tatsuhiko (Go Ayano) who’s come to Shinjuku to make it big. He’s here because it’s the sort of place you can make it happen with no plan and no resources. “Luckily” for him, he runs into low-level gangster Mako (Yusuke Iseya) who spots some kind of potential in him and recruits him as a “scout” for his organisation, Burst. Now dressed in a fancy suit, Tatsuhiko’s new job is stopping pretty girls in the street and trying to talk them into working in the sex industry….
Tatsuhiko is not the brightest and doesn’t quite understand what the implications of his work are. When he finally gets it, he feels conflicted but Mako convinces him that’s it’s OK really with a set of flimsy moral justifications. Before long, Tatsuhiko comes into conflict with a lieutenant, Hideyoshi (Takayuki Yamada), from the rival gang in town, Harlem, and a yakuza style territorial dispute begins to unfold destabilising the entire area.
Sono has often been criticised for latent misogyny and an exploitative approach to his material and Shinjuku Swan is yet more evidence for those who find his output “problematic”. Though based on a manga and scripted by a third party, Shinjuku Swan has an extremely ill-defined take on the sex industry and the people involved with it. After figuring out what happens to the girls he takes to Mako, Tatsuhiko has second thoughts but Mako tells him that the girls are happy and are in this line of work because they enjoy it (leaving out all the stuff about debts, drugs, and violence). So Tatsuhiko vows to make even more girls live happy lives inside the “massage parlours” of Kabukicho.
Noble heart or not, Tatsuhiko is a pimp. Not even that, he’s a middle man pimp. He’s earning his money from the suffering of the women that’s he conned, coerced, and finally exploited. Leaving aside the idea that, yes, some of these women may be perfectly happy with the arrangement, at least one of Tatsuhiko’s recruits displays evidence of previous self harm and is unable to cope with the demands of her new way of life. Another woman, Ageha (Erika Sawajiri), who becomes Tatsuhiko’s primary damsel in distress, escapes into a children’s fairytale picture book in which a prince with crazy hair just like Tatsuhiko’s comes to rescue the heroine from her life of slavery and takes her to a place of love and safety. Tatsuhiko “rescues” her by taking her to a “nicer” brothel…
Tatsuhiko may have convinced himself that he’s somehow a force for good, “helping” these women into employment and providing “protection” for them unlike the other guys from rival gangs who use drugs and violence to keep their girls in line, but his continued belief in his own goodness becomes increasingly hard to swallow as he learns more about how this industry really works. It’s difficult to believe in a “hero” who is so deluded about his own place in the grand scheme of things – he’s not stupid enough to be this oblivious, but not clever enough to be continually unseeing all of the darkness that surrounds the way he makes his living.
All of this is merely background to the central yakuza gang war which later ensues. Tatsuhiko ends up as a pawn in the tussle for territory between Burst and Harlem as double crosses become triple crosses and no one is to be trusted. Predictably, Tatsuhiko and Hideyoshi turn out to have a long standing connection though this revelation never achieves the dramatic weight it’s looking for and the gang war itself is, at best, underwhelming. Notable scenes including a classic battle in the rain could have been spliced in from Crows Zero and no one would have noticed. The main dramatic thread remains Tatsuhiko’s journey as he travels from clueless loser to, admittedly still clueless, assured petty gangster and smooth talking lady killer.
If there’s an overall feeling which imbues Shinjuku Swan, it’s lack of commitment. Though often beautifully photographed and featuring some interestingly composed sequences (including a few Carax-esque musical set pieces) the final effect is one of workman-like competence. Not bad by any means, but this feels like the work of a director for hire and lacks the sense of the personal that a would-be-auteur would usually seek to provide. Moral ambiguity can often be a film’s strong point, inviting comment and debate rather than pushing a pre-defined agenda but Shinjuku Swan takes too many incompatible approaches to the already unpalatable series of questions that it stops short of asking. Distinctly uneven, Shinjuku Swan ends on a note of anti-climax and though a perfectly serviceable, mainstream, commercial effort proves something of a disappointment from a director who has often managed to bring out a sense of mischievous irony in similarly themed work to date.