The Blood of Wolves (孤狼の血, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018)

korou_honpos_0220_fin.aiJapanese cinema, like American cinema, is one of the few in which the hero cop is a recognisable trope. Though they may be bumbling, inefficient, obsessed with bureaucracy, or perhaps just lazy, police in Japanese cinema are rarely corrupt or actively engaged in criminality. Even within the realms of the “jitsuroku” gangster movie, the police maintain a fringe presence, permitting the existence of the underground crime world in order to contain it. “Jitsuroku” is, in a fashion, where we find ourselves with Kazuya Shiraishi’s throwback underworld police story, The Blood of Wolves (孤狼の血, Koro no Chi). Set in 1988, the end of the Showa Era which had seen the rebirth of post-war Japan and the ascendency of yakuza thuggery, The Blood of Wolves is based on a novel by Yuko Yuzuki rather than a “true account” of life on the frontlines of gangsterdom, but otherwise draws inspiration from the Battles Without Honour series in updating the story of nihilistic yakuza violence to the bubble era.

In 1988, a young accountant “goes missing” sending his sister to ask the police for help in locating him. The case gets passed to sleazy detective Ogami (Koji Yakusho) and his new rookie partner, Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka). Ogami leers disturbingly at the dame who just walked into his office before dismissing the newbie and extracting a sexual favour from the distressed relative of the missing man. Unfortunately, the accountant turns up dead and the bank he worked for turns out to be a yakuza front caught up in a burgeoning gang war between the Odani with whom Ogami has long standing connections and the gang from the next town over who are looking to increase their territory.

Ogami, a chain smoking, hard drinking, womanising detective of the old school, has one foot in the yakuza world and the other on the side of law enforcement. Hioka, a recent graduate from the local but also elite Hiroshima University (something of a rarity in his current occupation), is not quite sure what to make of his new boss and his decidedly “unorthodox” methods, becoming increasingly concerned about the way the police force operates in a town defined by organised crime. Deciding that Ogami has gone too far, he eventually makes the decision to go to IA with a list of complaints but there’s still so much he doesn’t know about Hiroshima and it is possible he may have picked the wrong side.

What he discovers is that the police force is so intrinsically rotten as to have become little more than a yakuza gang itself, only one with the legal right to carry guns and a more impressive uniform. Ogami, for all his faults, apparently has his heart in the right place. His “friendships” with gangsters are more means to an end than they are spiritual corruption, gaining leverage that will help him keep a lid on gang war – after all, no one wants a return to the turbulent days of the 1970s when the streets ran red with the blood of unlucky foot soldiers and that of the civilians who got in their way. Meanwhile Hioka, starting out as the straight-laced rookie, is himself “corrupted” by the corruption he uncovers, developing a complex mix of disgust and admiration for Ogami’s practiced methods of manipulation which, apparently, place public safety above all else.

Ogami, as he tells the conflicted Hioka, knows he walks a tightrope every day, neatly straddling the line between cop and yakuza, and the only way to stay alive is to keep on walking knowing one slip may lead to his doom. He may say cops can do whatever they like in pursuit of “justice” (and he does), but Ogami has his lines that cannot be crossed, unlike others in his organisation who care only for themselves and have long since given up any pretence of working for the public good.

Shiraishi channels classic Fukasaku from the noticeably retro Toei logo at the film’s opening to the voice over narration, garish red on screen text, and frequent use of freeze frames familiar from the Battles Without Honour series and associated “jitsuroku” gangster fare that followed in its wake. Moving the action up to 1988, the gangster world is once again in flux as it tries to corporatise itself to get in on the profits of bubble era prosperity which largely has no need for the thuggish gangster antics of the chaotic post-war years in which the yakuza could paint itself as a defender of the poor and oppressed no matter how ridiculous it might have been in reality. Ogami is a dying breed, a relic of the Showa era meeting its natural end, but perhaps you need to be a wolf to catch a wolf and guardian spirits can come in unexpected forms.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hamon: Yakuza Boogie (破門 ふたりのヤクビョーガミ, Shotaro Kobayashi, 2017)

hamon posterConventional wisdom states it’s better not to get involved with the yakuza. According to Hamon: Yakuza Boogie (破門 ふたりのヤクビョーガミ Hamon: Futari no Yakubyogami), the same goes for sleazy film execs who can prove surprisingly slippery when the occasion calls. Based on Hiroyuki Kurokawa’s Naoki Prize winning novel and directed by Shotaro Kobayashi who also adapted the same author’s Gold Rush into a successful WOWWOW TV Series, Hamon: Yakuza Boogie is a classic buddy movie in which a down at heels slacker forms an unlikely, grudging yet mutually dependent relationship with a low-level gangster.

Ninomiya (Yu Yokoyama), a classic slacker, makes ends meet by acting as a kind of liaison officer between the normal world and the yakuza one. His contact, Kuwahara (Kuranosuke Sasaki), is a scary looking guy but as yakuza go not so bad to work with. Following the government’s organised crime crackdown, Ninomiya finds himself at more of a loose end and so when an elderly film director, Koshimizu (Isao Hashizume), comes to him and asks to meet a yakuza first hand, Ninomiya sets up a meeting. Yakuza and movies can be a dangerous mix but somehow or other Koshimizu manages to charm the pair and even gets Kuwahara’s boss, Shimada (Jun Kunimura), to invest some of his own money.

Unfortunately, this is when things start to go wrong. Koshimizu’s pretty “daughter” is really his mistress (as Kuwahara suspected) and the wily old bugger has taken off for the casino paradise of Macao with both the beautiful woman and suitcase full of yakuza dough. Kuwahara is now in a lot of trouble and ropes in Ninomiya to help him sort it out but in their pursuit of Koshimizu they eventually find themselves caught up in a series of turf wars.

Yakuza comedies have a tendency towards unexpected darkness but Hamon’s key feature is its almost childish innocence as Ninomiya and Kuwahara go about their business with relatively few genuinely life threatening incidents. Though the pair bicker and argue with Ninomiya always secretly afraid of his big gangster buddy and Kuwahara fed up with his nerdy friend’s lack of know how, the relationship they’ve developed is an intensely co-dependent one which fully supports the slightly ironic “no me without you” message. Eventually growing into each other, Ninomiya and Kuwahara move increasingly into the other’s territory before finally re-encountering each other on more equal footing.

These are less rabid killers than a bunch of guys caught up in a silly game. Shady film director Koshimizu turns out to be some sort of cartoon hero, perpetually making a sprightly and unexpected escape despite his advanced age while the toughened gangsters hired to keep him locked up find themselves one hostage short time after time. Ninomiya’s worried cousin Yuki (Keiko Kitagawa) keeps trying to talk him into a more ordered way of life which doesn’t involve so much hanging round with scary looking guys in suits, but Ninomiya is reluctant to leave the fringes of the underworld even if he seems afraid for much of the time. Kuwahara is a yakuza through and through, or so he thinks. This latest saga has left him in an embarrassing position with his bosses, not to mention the diplomatic incident with a rival gang, all of which threatens his underworld status and thereby essential identity.

Still, all we’re talking about here is having a little more time for solo karaoke, not being bundled into the boot of a car and driven to a remote location. Filled with movie references and slapstick humour this is a yakuza tale inspired by classic cinematic gangsters rather than their real world counterparts but it still has a few things to say about human nature in general outside of the fictional. An odd couple, Ninomiya and Kuwahara couldn’t be more different but besides the fact they don’t quite get along, they make a good team. No me without you indeed, solo stakeouts are boring, even if you do bicker and fuss the whole time it’s good to know there’s someone who’ll always come back for you (especially if you tell them not to) ready to take the wheel.


Hamon: Yakuza Boogie was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Thermae Romae

THERMAE ROMAE-T

Lucius ambulat in Tokyo? Review of improbable time travel comedy Thermae Romae up at UK-anime.net.


Pop quiz – what do modern day Japan and Ancient Rome have in common? Fish sauce? Emperor worship? Sandals? More than you thought, wasn’t it? Well, the correct answer is public bath houses and sure enough the people of modern day Tokyo still love going to the public bath even though they enjoy the luxury of being able to bathe at home! Of course, bath house culture with all its social and political uses and divisions was one of the things the Roman Empire took with it wherever it went. However, there must have been a time when some Romans began to feel their baths were getting a bit stale and in need of a new ‘modern’ twist, but what to do? What if they could leap forward in time and learn from the 21st century bath culture of modern Japan! Enter down on his luck architect Lucius who suddenly finds himself in a strange land full of strange looking people who seem to have taken bath technology to its very zenith.

Lucius Modestus (Hiroshi Abe) is a once successful bath architect with a case of serious designer’s block. Replaced on a prime project because he’s been unable to come up with any ideas he decides to go for a soak at the local bath house but whilst clearing his head underwater he finds himself sucked through a passage way only to reappear in a very strange looking place – it’s a bath house alright, but not as we know it! As they’re speaking a strange language he doesn’t understand, Lucius assumes the elderly men bathing here must be slaves and he’s been sucked into the “slaves only” part of the baths. Some of this stuff is kind of cool though – what are these funny spigot like things for, and these handy little buckets? Wait – they have baskets for their clothes?! We could do with some these in our bit! And so Lucius experiences the wonder of public bathing in Japan to the extent that it makes him cry with joy at which point he returns to Ancient Rome and begins to put some of these techniques to use in his designs. Travelling back and fore, Lucius always seems to run into the same Japanese girl who wants to make him the star of a manga and group of kindly old men. Can Lucius finally build the bath house of his dreams and stop a conspiracy against his beloved Emperor Hadrian at the same time?

Based on Mari Yamazaki’s manga of the same name (which also received an anime treatment from DLE), Thermae Romae sticks fairly closely to a fish out of water format for the the first half of the film as Lucius becomes by turns confused and then entranced by the various pieces of modern bathing technology he encounters on his travels. As a Roman encountering other people who are obviously not Roman, he of course adopts a superior attitude and assumes these people are either slaves or ought to be and so is extremely bewildered that their advancements seem to have eclipsed those of his own beloved Rome. These situations obviously provide a lot of room for humour as Lucius encounters various things that seem perfectly normal to us but strange and alien to him – his pure joy at discovering the wonder of the multifunctional Japanese toilet being particularly notable. It does though become fairly repetitive as Lucius finds himself in different situations which are essentially the same joke in different colours but then when the plot element begins to kick in later in the film it too fails to take off and feels a little too serious when taken with the wacky time travelling antics we began with.

Aided in his quest Lucius meets several amusing supporting characters including the group of elderly men from the baths who didn’t really need the help of an improbable ancient Roman to get themselves in trouble and Mami who functions as a kind of love interest who’s cast Lucius as the hero in her next manga. Mami begins learning about the Roman Empire and takes a course in Latin which helps a lot when she too finds herself in Ancient Rome and facilitates a kind of cross cultural exchange as she steals ideas from Rome for her manga as Lucius stole for the baths. However, the romantic comedy element never really comes together and even as Mami continues to pine over her noble Roman, Lucius remains aloof in the universal belief that all non-Romans are inferior. Though he does come to grudgingly acknowledge that the ‘flat faced people’ as he calls them have particular strengths such as their willingness to work as a team and put collective success ahead of personal gain, he never quite sheds his Roman arrogance.

It’s all very silly but undeniably quite funny if often absurd. We hear everyone in Rome speaking in Japanese and Lucius continues to think in Japanese wherever he actually is but obviously once he gets to Japan he can’t understand what anyone’s saying and attempts to communicate with them in Latin (whilst still giving his interior monologue in Japanese). Likewise, when Mami learns Latin she uses it to communicate with Lucius in Japan but once they get to Rome, all their ‘Latin’ is Japanese too which causes problems when the old men arrive because they’re speaking the same language as everyone else yet can’t understand anyone or be understood – which might be why they don’t get to say very much other than to Mami. It’s all quite strange and disorientating but kind of works as does the largely Puccini based score which screams 19th century Italy much more than Ancient Rome but helps to give the film the air of classical pomposity it’s aiming for. Big, ridiculous, silly fun – no one could accuse Thermae Romae of having any kind of serious message but it does provide genuinely entertaining silliness for the majority of its running time.