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The films of Takashi Miike can be rather… eclectic. In recent years his output has included several manga adaptions and kids TV shows after all. But here he goes back to basics with a story about gangsters, call girls and corrupt cops. But is this really a love story? Does it have something for long term fans and newcomers alike? In some ways these things are true. It certainly contains a lot of bizarre imagery without ever being too nightmarish, and it certainly has a story about a naive young couple brought together by a series of unhappy coincidences. But overall the result is a perfect gateway movie into his more extreme projects, which is interesting to see unfold after he’s made over one hundred movies.
Things start off very slowly as boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) struggles to find motivation in his life beyond winning the next match. However his career is about to fall apart after he suffers a knock-out in the ring without any clear reason, and a doctor and shows him some very bad news on a brain scan. It’s not what he wanted to give him a new lease on life, but like other stories of this kind it does manage to push him into taking action he wouldn’t normally have considered. Meanwhile drug addicted prostitute Monica (Sakurako Konishi) is struggling to pay off her father’s debts to a yakuza clan. But things are about to get worse for her as gang member Kase (Shota Sometani) plans to steal a lot of drugs from their employers, framing her in the process with the help of detective Otomo (Nao Omori).
It’s a fairly straightforward tale despite so many moving pieces. The introduction of a Chinese triad group both complicates and helps Kase’s scheme as things unfold, but initially things seem to be going his way to a certain extent. However as Otomo pays for Monica’s services as a way of covering their tracks things go awry and soon Leo and Monica are on the run. Things really start to get interesting as Kase’s various attempts to cover up his mistakes just create more problems and he’s faced with a growing number of enemies from both sides, and a growing body count. Tying up loose ends just seems to create more problems, and a lot of the twisted humour in the film comes from his failures and successes.
But like the best crime movie ensembles this is a character driven story and there are various highlights along the way. Beyond Kase himself the standout has to be crowbar wielding Julie (Rebecca Eri Rabone) who seems at first to be a simple obstacle in Kase’s plan but quickly turns into a vengeance driven maniac. The central duo are less interesting in terms of pure screen presence, but their own private lives are compelling enough as they struggle through this gangster filled quagmire. A lot of other faces fill out the cast including Chiachi (Mami Fujioka) a triad member concerned with the lack of honour in her line of work, and one-armed killer Wang (Yen Cheng-kuo) who seems to insist on using a shotgun despite his injury.
But I guess it’s time to talk about all that mandatory weirdness, which might take some time to arrive but soon gets going. Monica’s problems don’t just come in the form of withdrawal symptoms but visions of her father that interrupt the chase throughout. Sometimes they’re horrifying, sometimes they are horrifying and funny at the same time. Elsewhere there are various instances of gruesome violence, which is pretty effective whether it’s on screen or not. As all parties converge in the third act for a big hardware store finale there are even brief moments of animation used to depict certain events. It doesn’t really capitalise on the location as you might expect, but it’s a manic and blood soaked conclusion.
But is this really a film about romance? To be honest it’s never that straightforward. Leo and Monica obviously bond along the way, although they also devote time to exploring Monica’s lost innocence. As well has seeing her father in the faces of strangers she also sees her old boyfriend, and there’s a sense that the true first loves in life are those which have been lost or have to be let go. In some ways the story is about growth and maturity as Leo begins to move beyond his selfish ambitions and help others, in a way shedding his single minded ways. But it’s never quite so deeply existential as this sounds, and tonally the film is never as bleak or gritty. It’s certainly not as dark as something like the films in the Black Society Trilogy.
The end results are stylish and entertaining, without ever being too overtly grotesque or eccentric. But it’s a very consistent and polished film that is easy to recommend to most viewers. As long as they’re after a crime thriller filled with lurid visuals and unbalanced characters of course. The subtle editing choices are effective and the neon colour palette is very striking. Old school fans of the director might be left craving something genuinely wild in terms of vivid horror or underworld scumbags, but this works on its own terms. For a modern and accessible take on old formulas this is a solid entry to the film maker’s body of work. After a few shaky releases that didn’t quite hit the mark (see Yakuza Apocalypse) this is a pretty satisfying return to form.