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Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Gunning hard for the box office

Yurusarezaru Mono

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Takashi Miike
Running time: 149 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens March 29

Takashi Miike released nearly a film a month last year, from the black comedy "Kinfyu Hametsu Nippon: Togenkyo no Hitobito (Shangri-la)" to "Shin Jingi no Hakaba (Graveyard of Honor)," a blood-soaked remake of the 1975 Kinji Fukasaku classic about a self-destructive gangster. For Miike, the hardest-working man in the Japanese movie business, this insane pace was nothing out of the usual.

News photo
Kazuki Kitamura, Masaya Kato and Ryosuke Miki in "Yurusarezaru Mono"

Also, though he is worshipped abroad as the most outrageous cinematic outlaw of his generation, Miike remains relatively unknown in Japan. His films usually make a quick transition from the screen to the video shelf -- and thus rarely get the sort of mass media attention that translates into wide recognition.

This year, Miike has slowed down somewhat -- and, if his new gang film "Yurusarezaru Mono (The Unforgiven)" is any evidence, he is yearning to step off the straight-to-video hamster wheel. Not that the film is playing at your local multiplex -- it is opening on the 29th at Theater Image Forum, a trendy Shibuya art house -- but it does have a scale and ambition that belies its low budget. Given the film's high body count and story of gang intrigue and fraternal rivalry, the inevitable comparison is with "The Godfather." More pertinent, though, are recent Korean films like "No Way Out," "Friend" and "Public Enemy" that reinvigorate tired action formulas with a mixture of dirty realism and extreme violence, while successfully appealing to a mass audience. Miike's film belongs in this company -- but given the peculiarities of the local market, it will never reach the same box-office summit.

Scripted by Shigenori Takechi, who was also responsible for Miike's "Araburu Tamashitachi (Agitator)," "Yurusarezaru Mono" is, like the previous film, a gang epic with a twisty plot line. Instead of the usual epic pace and stylistics, however, Miike has opted for a hand-held camera and a flash-editing approach that tries to replicate the turbulent inner world of the hero. This is not to say Miike always succeeds. In its third act, "Yurusarezaru Mono" tips over into arcade-game excess, with bodies flying in nearly every scene, but its angle of approach remains consistent. Though hardly a documentary look at gang life, it gets inside its hero's head -- and expresses his world view -- with a gut-wrenching force.

That view is, as might be expected, harshly Darwinian. Gangsters, as director Rokuro Mochizuki once told me, are terrorists who live by intimidation and violence. They move in a highly charged atmosphere in which the will must triumph -- or be ruthlessly crushed. "Yurusarezaru Mono" buzzes with a similar juice, as if the camera itself is wired on that yakuza drug of choice: speed.

Azusa (Masaya Kato), a lieutenant for the Renjo gang, is boarding an elevator with his boss (Masahiko Tsugawa) and the rest of the boss's entourage when a hit man blows away everyone -- but him. The hit man, he sees with shock and rage, is his older brother Gunji (Tatsuya Fuji) who, when he was a teenager, murdered their father with a baseball bat and now, after decades of acting out, is an outcast in both straight and gang society.

Azusa soon feels the heat from Watari (Ryosuke Miki), his hot-headed gang superior, who wonders why he is the only survivor, but after getting tipped off by a friendly cop (Hiroki Matsukata), Azusa heads out to avenge his beloved boss's death. Enlisting the aid of Mizutani (Kazuki Kitamura) -- a fellow-biker who is now lighting cigarettes for middle-aged women at a host club -- he launches an attack against the Sogenkai, a rival gang he believes ordered the hit.

But instead of being a loyal Sogenkai soldier, Gunji is in cahoots with Sakazaki (Renji Ishibashi), an opportunist who may be affiliated with the Sogenkai, but hopes to profit by stirring up a gang war. The pair's scheme is exposed -- and they become targets of Sogenkai wrath.

The Sogenkai, in fact, wants peace -- and its leaders even step in to settle a potentially explosive internal dispute between Watari and Renjo-gumi second-in-command Shiraishi (Nezu Jinpachi). But while his gang superiors are playing politics, Azusa is bent on his crusade for rough justice. Inevitably, he and Gunji meet again, with consequences that soon have Miike's effects team working overtime.

A model-turned-actor whose Hollywood career has so far fizzled, Kato is not Miike's most obvious casting choice for Azusa -- he may look terrific in a white suit, but yakuza seldom come with his generically handsome looks. Once he is paired with Kitamura -- a yakuza-movie veteran whose pretty-boy face is suitably dissolute -- his presence starts to make sense, however. These two work well together as friends and partners in a mad rampage, like latter-day Lord Byrons armed with semiautomatic weapons.

Playing Gunji, Fuji is, at 62, long in the tooth to be scampering around warehouses spraying bullets. He is, though, Miike's answer to Quentin Tarantino's much-praised casting of Robert Forster in "Jackie Brown" -- an actor whose understated performance makes you wonder where he has been all these years.

True, the film overdoes the macho romanticism and the mass carnage -- Azusa and company wipe out entire divisions of yakuza, with weaponry that looks as though it belongs in "The Matrix: Reloaded." Too bad Miike didn't have the budget for 360-degree shots of slo-mo bullets. But if "Yurusarezaru Mono" is any indication, he wants to get there -- and one day he just may arrive. Coming -- the new Miike at the mall nearest you.

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