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Wednesday, July 10, 2002
All the rage and more
Remakes are usually a bad idea if the original film is any good. Whatever makes a film good is the product of certain talents coming together at a certain time and place -- conditions that the remaker can never hope to duplicate. But Hollywood tries again and again, with the usual rationale being the box office. Americans, save for the cinematically literate few, won't sit still for black-and-white or subtitled films. So rather than revive "Psycho" or release "The Ring" for the multiplex masses, Hollywood prefers to remake them, in the hope of duplicating the success those films first enjoyed. That hope often becomes an disappointment, but it still hasn't stopped the production of remakes.
In Japan the economic rationale for remakes is much the same, though they are more often regarded as a homage to a distinguished senpai. Even Akira Kurosawa isn't safe from this kind of attention. In 1997 a TV drama director filmed a cheesy color remake of "Rashomon," but it disappeared from the theaters so quickly it may have discouraged similar attempts. Or maybe not. Now that two Kurosawa scripts have been filmed since his death, someone out there may be itching to "reinterpret" more of his work. "Seven Samurai," say, with a member of SMAP playing the Mifune role and with lots of cool digital effects.
The latest local remake is Takashi Miike's "Shin Jingi no Hakaba (New Graveyard of Honor)," inspired by Kinji Fukasaku's 1975 film about a gangster who violates the gang code with an impetuosity that ends in his downfall and death. Based on a novel by Goro Fujita, Fukasaku's film was relentlessly dark, in a way seldom seen before or since. Rising from a sick bed that had kept him away from the screen for a year, Tetsuya Watari played the hero, Rikio Ishikawa, as a hollow-eyed man who plunges through life like a wounded beast, longing for the release of oblivion. His last words, scrawled on the wall of his cell: "Owarai, sanjunen no baka sawagi (What a laugh -- a 30-year spree)."
Fukasaku's film was set in the war and early postwar years. Miike's begins in the bubble era and unfolds in the post-bubble recession. The shadow of poverty and social chaos so present in the earlier film is thus absent in the new one. The first close encounter of Ichikawa (Goro Kishitani) with the gangs is a shootout in a fancy Chinese restaurant where he works -- a shootout he ends with contemptuous ease, saving Sawada (Shingo Yamashiro) the boss of the Sawada-gumi. He is rewarded with admission to the gang as an under-boss, thus skipping the bother of an apprenticeship. A very bubble-era beginning, in other words. Unfortunately, Ishikawa is a rageball with zero impulse control. Other gangsters get steamed when they don't get their way: Ishikawa explodes.
His first encounter with Chieko (Narimi Arimori), the woman who becomes his long-suffering lover and common-law wife, is typical. Meeting her at the hostess club where she works, he invites her to a karaoke session. Once inside the booth, he brutally rapes her, wiping her blood on the club's posted rules as he walks out. This is a man who does not know the meaning of "no." Naturally, this being a yakuza movie, she falls in love with him.
Sent to prison for whacking a gangster who welshed on a gambling debt, Ishikawa becomes pals with Imamura (Ryosuke Miki), an under-boss with the rival Giyu gang. When he gets out, after five years, not only his old crew, but Imamura and Chieko are waiting. Life, for the next eight years, is good. Ishikawa rises in the gang hierarchy, even as the economy falls into recession. Then, one day, when he comes to Sawada for a 10 million yen loan (Chieko wants to open a club of her own), he is given what he considers to be a runaround by his gang seniors and sends several of them to the hospital in a fit of rage. This is a whackable offense -- and one that turns out to have been totally unnecessary (Sawada was willing to give him the money but had to go to the dentist with a toothache).
Ishikawa goes to Imamura for help and his friend agrees to shelter him, but Sawada-gumi gangsters soon track him down. He escapes their wrath and sneaks into Sawada's house to confront him about the loan -- and ends up killing him. "The game is over," says one gangster on hearing the news. Ishikawa, however, refuses to be taken off the board; instead he wants to first eliminate as many other pieces as possible.
The director, Takashi Miike, is mainly known abroad for films like "Audition," "Koroshiya Ichi (Ichi the Killer)" and "Visitor Q" that frontally assault the audience with sadistic violence and sex, bodily fluids and gore, in quantities designed to turn even the most "ironic" stomach. But as Miike has proved several times in his career, most notably in 1998's "Gokudo Kuro Shakai Rainy Dog (Rainy Dog)" and now with "Shin Jingi no Hakaba," he can present emotions as well as effects, with something resembling empathy and insight, even if his subject is closer to a clinical case than a romantic loner. Yes, the film is 20 minutes too long and the violence is extreme (thus the late-show screening at one Tokyo theater), but it also among Miike's strongest.
Working from a script by Takenori Takechi, Miike may not explain Ishikawa's background -- he is mad and bad from his first scene -- but he goes deeper than Fukasaku into Ishikawa's tortured affair with Chieko. What seems at first a crude S/M fantasy (a weak reed of a woman submitting to the strong will of her macho master) evolves into something stranger and more complex. These two, we come to see, need each other to live out their scenarios of self-destruction to the limit. As you degrade me, you complete me. The film is really a love story.
As Ishikawa, Kishitani ("Returner," "All Under the Moon") is every inch the modern Japanese gangster, right down to his sculpted eyebrows and tightly wound punch-perm curls. He is a viper of a man, who strikes mercilessly and senselessly, but he is also capable of courage. Having started the game, he plays it to the hilt, one piece against a dozen. What finally breaks him is not fear of his enemies, but loss of the only thing he loved. Watari's Ishikawa ended as a lost soul, gnawing on his lover's bones in front of his horrified former comrades. Kishitani's is equally lost, but smiling beatifically as he leaps into the void. Free at last.