Monday, July 17, 2006

Salaryman Kintaro: The other face of Japan's most shocking film-maker.

So this is old news by all means, but I finally sat down and watched SALARYMAN KINTARO all the way through. If you asked the average American viewer in to horror and exploitation films - the only average viewer in to Japanese cinema to any real degree - what director MIIKE Takashi was involved in, you'll get a few expected responses:

ICHI THE KILLER - the out of control comic-book adaptation about a teenaged cry-baby with blades strapped to his heels. As violent as it is sexual, it's combination of gore and rape would make any censorship board freak out, and infact both the R-Rated and Cat III (Hong Kong) editions are trimmed from their 128 minute runtime to a meager 113 minutes. Rape, gore, blood, semen and so much more drench the screen in one of the most suprisingly original and introspective films to tackle the existance of masochism yet, in which the sadistic anti-hero of the film Kakihara and the almost totally unseen title character use sexual violence as the only way they can communicate in Japan's polite and restrained society. Sure, it's about as subtle as a kick in the nuts, but that people STILL don't get it just amazes me.

AUDITION - Reviled the world over, the film isn't as graphic as Ichi, but it is a "better" film taking visual cues from Dario Argento's psychadellic giallo and disturbing scenes of mutilation that look like a more polished version of the student masterpiece KICHIKU DAI ENKAI, Audition begins as the sweetest romance film ever made and by the final reel has degenerated in to a feminist remake of the infamous GUINEAPIG: FLOWER OF FLESH AND BLOOD. Having done poorly in Japan is no surprise; the idea of a beautiful woman of class torturing a man who was genuinely infatuated with her is probably Japanese society's most deeply seated nightmare come to life.

VISITOR Q - Perhaps Miike's most lovable "extreme" film, Visitor Q works largely - despite it's shoestring budget - because of ENDOU Kenichi's willingness to do anything and everything for the camera, be it get smacked in the head with a rock, prematurely ejaculate on his own daughter or suckle his wife's breast milk in a frighteningly somber sense of rebitrth. Once more tackling the restrictive and falsely polite and gentle Japanese society - and the modern concept of "family" which has become so openly dilluted over the centuries - Visitor Q one of my favorite movies ever, simply because while it should be shocking and horrible... it's not. It's every person's guilty pleasures and frustrations made a reality by the mere presence of a stranger who doesn't care what we do. We can blame Kenichi's character for going insane if we want... but we can't. He is every man who's struggled to make everyone around him happy and only been treated like garbage for it. Why shouldn't he have his day? Even if it involved massacring highschool bullies in his underpants.

There are more recent, and yes, more esotoric films you could add to this list; the dreamlike and Lynch inspired GOZU (Minotaur), the difficultly minimalistic and overtly homo-erotic JUVENILE A: BIG BANG LOVE, the short-changed and impossible to define samurai trip that iz IZO, and his own personal distain for Memoirs of a Geisha put to digital video in his first English language production, an episode of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR series (IMPRINT) which had to be cut for it's US premier - AFTER Miike's co-producers begged him to pre-cut it, AND after Showtime had told directors do do anything they wanted! All the same, when asked about the controversey over his epicly gruesome (and badly acted) entry to shis new and varried series, his reply was "me, a Master of Horror? I directed Salaryman Kintaro!"

And so he did. Salaryman Kintaro was originally a manga, about an ex-yakuza who works as a manager in a medium-sized contruction company in Japan. He lives with his inlaws who own the company, his lovely wife and his adoring son. He looks like a typical salaryman, but when he sees trouble and injustice he acts like anything but, relying on the tenacity and passion of his youth to save children from burning buildings, or saves some poor schmuck from being beaten up by pink kids. His live is different, but pretty average... until he crosses a crooked company who's in with a senator to co-op every construction company in to a single government run organization with no plans to support all the currently existing workers. Kintaro stands his ground, and when his boss and son are both wounded in bombings Kintaro calls on his old pals to teach them a lesson...

It should be noted that, despite his internationla reputation as a horror maestro, Miike is if anything a yakuza director by nature. From shounen manga inspired action films like FUDOH and FAMILY that focus on organized crime structure as a backdrop to it's mayhem to films that only feature yakuza as a starting point like GOZU and FULL METAL GOKUDOU, Miike also has a vast array of titles that are straight up old-fashioned yakuza-eiga, including BLUES HARP, THE BLACK SOCIETY TRILOGY, AGITATOR, DEADLY OUTLAW REKKA, KIKOKU, THE NEW GRAVEYARD OF HONOR and even surreal, extreme spins on the genre like the D.O.A - DEAD OR ALIVE trilogy and the captivatingly weird CITY OF LOST SOULS, among many, many others. The cinematic adaptation of Salaryman Kintaro doesn't even HINT at Kintaro's former nature until over an hour and 20 minutes in, and even when we see him riding on his bike with hundreds of bikers in tow, it's a heroic and cheesy visual, not the gritty and grim imagery we'd usually associate with the fatalistic and tragic yakuza genre. Indeed, the presence of Kintaro's gang is almost secondary to his singular struggle with the men who hurt the people he cares most about, and Kintaro's at the fore beating punks in the face with his goons, acting more as a pawn in this war than a celebrated general. Kintaro, like many other Miike films, is yakuza in nature for a narritive purpose, not because it's the focus of the story.

But what is the point of Salaryman Kintaro? The answer is simple; to make audiences feel good. In much the same way Hollywood makes different films for different demographics, Japan has an underground for the fucked up gore and sex filled stuff I eat up with chopsticks, a quiet fandom for late nite anime, a rabid love for "big" American movies, and an equal hunter for films that are predictable, inauctious and are meant to leave the audience with a smile and a sense of wellness at the end. This is personified by the New Year's Movie - something Miike tried his hand at with his black comedy remake of a Korean film in HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS - which are made to leave families cheerful on the holidays. Salaryman Kintaro is the story of a good man who works hard and changes his world for the better despite difficulties in his path; in short, it's Japan's way of making a film in which a mild mannered man picks up a gun and blows some invading force's brains out. Different approach, same goal. Salaryman Kintaro is also at a disadvantage to most American viewers, since the manga has never been published in English (not legitly at least), and the anime TV series, which amazingly IS available in the US, has been seen by very, very few Americans. Lacking the background on the characters isn't nessicarily a flaw in the film; it's expected if you're willing to spend $20 on a ticket you kind of know the back story anyway. This puts a LOT of Japanese films at a disadvantage, but it's better than Americans who always -have- to tell origin stories in adaptations, even if every single person in the theatre knows damned well where so-and-so came from.

But the real problem Kintaro faces in the West is tryin gto understand why the film got made by Miike, the madman himself. The answer is simple; Miike likes making movies. Certainly many of his films get extreme, and ridiculously so, but that doesn't keep him from being a compitent commercial artist none the less. While his film ANDROMEDIA - a "band movie" mad for a sticky-sweet J-pop group named Speed - used to be considered something of a black sheep by many of Miike's fans, he's since made some very mainstream and family-appealing films, including the sweet natured ode to the sentai hero ZEBRAMAN, the suprisingly sedate shoujo-horror film ONE MISSED CALL, and the recent sequel to the 1960's fantasy series GREAT SPOOK WAR. Every one of these films are well made, and contain seemingly out of place touches or creativity which Miike infuses in nearly everything he created; even Salaryman Kintaro has it's share of exciting brawls set to the variable flashing lights of a pachinko parlor, and the final rush the hero makes against an armed SWAT team shot in the P.O.V. of someone in the throng itself is every bit as stylish and surreal as the best footage you'll find in anything in Miike's more "extreme" films. Miike makes "normal" commercial cinema just as well and easily as his over the top gross-out extravaganzas, and to really appreciate Miike as more than a shockmeister, you really should look at more than just his most out there films.

I'm not saying I'd take SALARYMAN KINTARO over IZO. I happen to like slightly pretentious and gore filled surrealism films in which Bob Sapp throws oni through walls and the hero's feminine side picks bugs out of his hair. That's just the kind of guy I am. But if you're in the mood for something that ISN'T meant to stick it's cock straight down your brain stem, you might find yourself liking it.

Personally I can't wait to see JUVENILE A: BIG BANG LOVE, which is ironic. Because I fucking HATE Dogville. (I'm still morbidly curious to see what KINGDOM is like, but otherwise Lars Von Trier can go fuck himself.) I also can't wait to see Miike's remake/sequel/whatever to DAIMAJIN. Yes, I like giant robots (even when they're made of stone) and anyone who doesn't has no soul. Simple as that.

Tune in next time when I lament about the loss of the last great hentai series of the 20th century.

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