“Fighting is the only way I have to live my life” according to a hitman battling existential ennui in Hiromichi Horikawa’s Toho action B-movie, Sun Above, Death Below (狙撃, Sogeki). A starrier affair than the studio’s other forays into moody crime, Horikawa’s psychedelic exploration of a killer drawn to death nevertheless situates itself very much in the world of 1968 in which the hero’s attempt to escape his sense of emptiness through killing is directly linked to an increasing economic prosperity and its concurrent costs in the nation’s current geopolitical positioning.
As if to signal this sense of societal anxiety, the first target Matsushita (Yuzo Kayama) knocks off is sitting in the back row of the last carriage on the Shinkansen out of Tokyo. His next job, however, will apparently be more complicated. A criminal gang want him to take out “five or six” targets at a specific location in order to intercept a fortune in gold smuggled by, as later becomes clear, an international Chinese gangster, though the men at the waterside greet each other in Arabic. The hit does not go entirely to plan but Matsushita is later able to bring the situation under control allowing the gang to get their hands on the gold. The smugglers, meanwhile, are obviously unhappy with this turn of events and send in their best hitman (Masayuki Mori), who permanently travels with a blonde companion, to take back what’s theirs.
Matsushita is a killer for hire so he doesn’t really care very much about the gold and is even annoyed when the gang try to pay him with it, correctly surmising they didn’t really expect him to succeed so haven’t bothered bringing any cash. As he explains to love interest Shoko (Ruriko Asaoka), he doesn’t really care about anything. He simply shoots at the best target, man, with his favourite gun. He kills to feel alive, explaining that the intense concentration in which he becomes one with the gun as if it were an extension of his own body allows him to overcome his sense of existential dread which is why he’s so ice cool all the time.
A fashion model obsessed with rare butterflies and the paradise to be found New Guinea Shoko dreams of a time in which they can become one under the sun, envisioning a future in which Matsushita has become friends with all the creatures of the forest. Yet as Matsushita tells an old friend, Fukazawa (Shin Kishida), running a secondhand gun shop near a US army base as a front for his revolutionary activities, he has no dream or ideal and knows nothing other than killing. Whereas as his friend is apparently working for some kind of never quite explained but seemingly left-wing/anarchist cause, Matsushita simply lives out his days of emptiness on some level knowing he’ll probably never make it to Shoko’s New Guinean utopia.
Fukazawa nevertheless hints at the political instability all around them, firstly agreeing to pawn a gun for a pair of Americans after beer money, and then by handing Matsushita an AK47 apparently smuggled back from Vietnam via the American base. Matsushita’s sense of ennui is born of this growing unease with empty capitalistic consumerism and a concurrent sense of powerless in Japan’s ongoing complicity with American foreign policy in Asia. Displaying a sense of Sinophobia familiar from many similar films of this era, the big boss turns out to be Chinese while many that surround him are also from outside of Japan even if Matsushita’s rival is just a slightly older, crueller version of himself.
One of Toho’s more serious crime dramas, Horikawa often veers into experimental territory with his psychedelic butterfly imagery Matsushita apparently having some kind of vision while experiencing carnal ecstasy that equates climax with literal gunshot, while his usage of stock footage featuring the New Guinean indigenous community along with an out of place blackface tribal dance performed in a hotel room clearly display some outdated attitudes otherwise unacceptable and potentially offensive in the present day. Nevertheless, Sun Above, Death Below largely lives up to its hardboiled title, the Japanese “Sniping” perhaps also hinting at the various ways Matsushita eventually strays into the crosshairs of his own inevitable destiny.
Original trailer (no subtitles)