Thursday, 18 October 2012


Although not part of the London Film Festival's strand called 'Thrillers' (instead, it's in 'First Features'), it would be hard to find a more suspenseful and enthralling crime film than The Samurai That Night, written and directed by Masaaki Akahori. The titular samurai is Kenichi Nakamura, who owns a small machine shop, and who lost his wife to a hit and run driver five years ago. The driver of the truck, Kijima, was caught because of the guilt felt by his friend Kobayashi, but now is out of prison, and looking for revenge, though he doesn't realise Kobayashi's betrayal. He also doesn't realise Nakamura is tailing him, though he does receive notes every morning, counting the days until the fifth anniversary, the anonymous sender telling him that he will kill both Kijima and himself.

From that beginning Akahori weaves the Japanese gangster movie into a penetrating look at the shallowness of the society—something worthy of the masters of the early postwar Japanese film. It's an interesting blend, as the darkness that comes close to film noir blends into the flatness, almost gray and dirty realism of working class Japan, but then bleeds into the special empty neon brightness of the modern world. What makes it work so well, however, is something that seems to carry over from the film's origins; Akahori wrote it as a play and it bears a considerable influence of theatre of the absurd. In the absurd, characters re-enact daily rituals, which often are seen as neuroses, as way of coping with the random indifference of life. What could be more ritualistic than the samurai, with his code of bushido, and heoric death. What death could be more indifferent than a hit and run? And Akahori's Japan is a world of indifference.

People live in tight spaces, they seem attached to electronic devices, they eat industrial fast-food. The hapless Nakamura gorges himself on packaged custard desserts; the last message he received from his wife on his answer machine, just before she died, scolds him and orders him to stay away from the custards. He plays the message over and over. Just like the absurd at its best, scenes shift from comedy into pathos. At dinner with a fellow teacher (the excellent Mitsuki Tanimura) with whom his brother-in-law is trying to match-make, he pulls out a pair of his wife's panties, and sniffs them. Then apologies politely.

'I have time, and I'm bored to death,' says a hooker who watches TV as Nakamura, having failed to perform the act he's paid form, furiously tries, and fails, to open a bag of crisps. Watching him struggle, she returns to her karioke. Earlier he's been told he doesn't look like a victim. 'I've looked this way since I was born,' he replies.

Everyone seems alone, and any attention is preferable to none: Kijima nearly kills Mr. Hoshi, whom he suspects of betraying him, but Hoshi continues to tag along with him, even as he victimises a young female a crossing guard. Hoshi later explains, 'he's my friend'. Having abused the girl, Kijima moves into her flat, eating her food and playing video games, and virtually ignoring her as she says 'It's nice to have someone here'.

Kijima is the would-be gangster, preying on the respectable, like Nakamura's brother-in-law, whom he blackmails in return for keeping the threats secret. Brilliantly played by Takayuki Yamada, he and his sidekicks Kobayashi (Gou Ayano) and Hoshi (Tomorowo Yaguchi) might be playing scenes from Waiting For Godot as they wander down the roads, or plot Kijima's revenge. It builds to a sort of primal noirish apocalypse, a show-down in the midst of a typhoon, then settles into an anti-heroic anti-climax, in which the promise of a relationship drifts away, and Nakamura returns to his custard, now baptising himself with it, rather than eating it. There is no transformation in the universe of the absurd, there is just the going on.

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