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Friday, Sep. 21, 2012

'Yoru ga Owaru Basho (End of the Night)'

Inventive debut feature takes noir to new places

Noir is a genre much beloved by young Japanese filmmakers, going back decades. As a reviewer for this newspaper in the 1990s, I became thoroughly tired of local indie films featuring a sullen young guy with a gun and an attitude. The accompanying girl, gangsters and glamorized bloodshed were all too clearly borrowed from Hollywood and European models, decades old. But these films must have felt cool to make, as style statements if nothing else.

Yoru ga Owaru Basho (End of the Night) Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
★ ★ ★ ?
Yoru ga Owaru Basho (End of the Night)
Killer with a melting heart: Kuniaki Nakamura plays conflicted hit man Akira in "Yoru ga Owaru Basho (End of the Night)." © Gener80 Film Production

Director: Daisuke Miyazaki
Running time: 79 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Sep 22, 2012
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Daisuke Miyazaki's first feature, "Yoru ga Owaru Basho (End of the Night)," is also a Japanese noir — it proclaims itself as such on its website — but it tries to imaginatively expand on its influences instead of paying slavish tribute to them.

Also, Miyazaki, who wrote the script from an original story, grounds his extreme plot in not only actual events and trends, such as the gloomy hiring prospects for the young in the Long Recession, but un-noir-esque mundaneness, from the moldy futon store the hero's hit-man father runs as a front to the enthusiastic tweets from customers that get a sex worker into trouble with a cosplay club manager. (She has, he complains, been delivering what should only be promised.)

In fact there is a black comic undercurrent, similar to that found in films of Takeshi Kitano (another big, and not always positive, influence on younger directors here), that serves more to undercut pretension than to generate laughs.

The hero is Akira (Kuniaki Nakamura), whom his adoptive father Tamegoro (Masayuki Shionoya) impulsively decided to raise after killing his birth parents. When Akira was 15, Tamegoro took him along on a hit — and the boy saw his father's grisly handiwork. Ten years on, as the story proper begins, Akira has become an Afro-haired hit man, leisurely licking a popsicle as his deadened eyes contemplate his two latest victims, their blood seeping into the tatami.

If he were the cold-blooded psychopath this scene suggests, the film might become less noir than horror. But the shocked boy we glimpsed at the beginning, who was capable of sympathy, still lives inside Akira's shell of chill amorality. This becomes apparent when he encounters Yukine (Nami Komiyama), the aforementioned sex worker, first as a customer, then as an unexpected savior.

For the first time in forever, Akira takes an interest in another human being as something other than a target. Yukine is naive, trusting and not terribly bright — that is, easy meat for a real criminal. But Akira is something else: a damaged soul, not an evil one.

The plot follows noir conventions. A hard-nosed detective will stop at nothing to end Akira's one-man crime wave, while Tamegoro and his criminal associates will do anything to keep it going. Inevitably, Yukine and her cute younger brother become pawns in this struggle. Will Akira, like dozens of his genre predecessors, rise to the occasion?

Miyazaki, a prize-winning short-film maker who has also worked as an assistant director for Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Kunitoshi Manda and other leading indie directors, does not indulge in the macho posturing or romanticizing endemic to local noir. Instead, he takes us into Akira's strange, sweet dream of Yukine sincerely crooning (or rather lip-synching) a decades-old Japanese pop tune. He also creates evocative scenes of surreal violence and stark confrontation that take the film into another, symbolic, dimension, as Akira's psychodrama moves toward its denouement.

Through it all, Nakamura's performance as Akira walks a fine line between the engagingly eccentric and the embarrassingly corny. He spends half the film dragging an injured foot and clasping a wooden stave with a determination both antiquely theatrical and dryly ironic, somewhat like Jackie Chan broadly playing the helpless drunk while effortlessly beating the bad guys to a pulp

The ending is appropriately noir-ish, though it's hard to say that Akira finds peace — or coolness. He really should have done something about that hair.

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