THE EXECUTION GAME (1979)
aka SHOKEI YUGI
Directed by Tôru Murakawa
Japanese Language with English Subtitles
Release as part of GAME TRILOGY by Arrow Video
After being run off the road and kidnapped with his lady friend, hitman Shohei Narumi is forced by a shadowy organisation to undertake the ultimate assassination – to kill another top-class hitman.
THE EXECUTION GAME, also known as Shokei Yugi, is the third and final film of the Game Trilogy, and takes a different path than its predecessors by stripping itself of all comedy and opting for something much more menacing.
In its slow and dramatic opening, assassin Narumi finds himself koshed over the head and kidnapped. The battered hitman is tortured and interrogated in the shadows by laughing kidnappers who appear to know about an incident a year previously involving a woman (a reference to events in The Killing Game?). The mystery man holding him hostage instructs Narumi to kill another hitman by the name of Okajima – an assassin as skilled as Narumi but someone who is no longer useful to their organisation.
Despite being tied up and imprisoned on their first meeting, Narumi has a certain calm about him when they meet again but this time face-to-face. He’s no fool and makes sure that if they want his services, they’ll have to pay him the fee he requires, not the one they want. It does seem strange that Narumi would even entertain doing business with them after their shenanigans that left him with a hand injury, but Narumi has his reasons and a lot of them involve a woman who seems to have left quite the impression.
Throughout the Game trilogy, we’ve seen Narumi evolve as a person. His lone wolf persona is gradually shedded as he appears to invite more into his life, from friends to lovers. Early scenes in THE EXECUTION GAME show Narumi in bed with a pianist and songstress he met downtown at a bar. Narumi seems quite taken with the woman but still tries to maintain distance between them as he knows he can’t really let anyone in completely. This is the first time we really see Narumi put his guard down around a woman. This glimpse into Narumi’s soul outside of being a gun for hire is a touching moment and it’s clear to see he’s relishing it. It also raises questions whether he’s beginning to have doubts on the career path he’s chosen and whether he’s looking to leave the assassination game behind. On a drive with the lady, they become the target of unwanted attention and are chased before ultimately being driven off the road. It’s at this moment that Narumi finds himself kidnapped. The mystery lady who cares for him so is never far from his mind, but perhaps letting anyone in is a dangerous thing to do, not just for those he cares about.
By focusing on the plot rather than playing some scenes for laughs, THE EXECUTION GAME is a much more effective crime thriller, even delivering a few surprises along the way. The scenes featuring supporting characters also feel meaningful this time around with a definite threat looming over Narumi’s head. The film hasn’t completely ditched its aesthetic it’s known for though. The jazz score is ever present as it has been in the earlier movies, as is the trilogy’s penchant for holding combat scenes in the dark. It still feels a part of the series but the ominous, brooding screenplay has elevated the movie to be taken more seriously in the crime genre. A fine example of this is the opening scenes with Narumi, the beloved main character, appearing broken and bloodied. This opener alone tells the audience this is a different style of film that we’re used to. Narumi’s extended silence throughout the first segment speaks more loudly than words ever could.
Despite the shift in tone, Yûsaku Matsuda manages to retain the edgy elements of Narumi that make him such a likeable character, with his softer moments showing that he is more than his job. Multiple exchanges with a young pocket-watch repairer provides light to counteract the darker scenes, and without being overplayed, are a nice touch to give the viewer respite from heavier scenes. When the movie demands it though, Matsuda switches to badass professional with ease as Narumi relies on that cunning that has served him well so far in the series.
A step up from the second movie, THE EXECUTION GAME is a fitting farewell to the rough and ready hitman with twists, turns and action that pack the punch the series has been waiting for.
The second disc on the Arrow Video GAME TRILOGY Blu-ray also hosts THE EXECUTION GAME and features a 22 minute interview with screenwriter Shoichi Maruyama. Labelled Game Changer, the interview sees Maruyama discuss the change in direction of the film, having initially wrote the script with the comedic vein in mind to fit neatly with the other two movies. He talks about how Matsuda wanted something different, more akin to Le Samourai, over fears of being typecasted, which led to the darker tone we see in the film. Maruyama also discusses his start in the writing game and how he initially dreamed of being the Japanese Shakespeare. His professional debut as writer for episode 1 of Detective Story, also starring Matsuda, set him on the path for THE EXECUTION GAME.
Other special features on the disc include an informative audio commentary with Tom Mes, the original theatrical trailer and 16-still image gallery.