It's Takashi Ishii's most famous movie and I'm not sure why. I like his work, but so far I'm struggling to see a reason to prefer any one of his films over another. He tells cold, reflective stories with lots of violence.
The main difference about it is that it's his first movie I've seen where the protagonists aren't women. Ishii is a nihilistic feminist whose work explores this in disturbing detail... but here that's a relatively minor element. It's a male story. Women are their dependents and hence victims. The world of Gonin is one in which men are risible neanderthals whose violence only ends up hurting themselves and their loved ones. Unspeakable things happen to wives and children in this movie, although in fairness the men are in for a rough ride too and I wouldn't hold your breath for many of them to be left alive afterwards. I still didn't notice any men being raped to death, though.
Instead of women, we have gay men. There's a lot of homosexuality in this film, with mirroring between the Gonin and the yakuza hitmen who'll be hunting them down. (Gonin means "Five People", by the way, and this film is sometimes called The Five.) I don't think Ishii is saying anything in particular about homosexuality and I presume he's not gay himself, but instead to me he's regarding his gay characters in a gender-neutral way to get to the emotion and pain that we all have in common.
This seems to have got a few reviewers over-excited. Either they're offended that it's "never explored", or else that it's excessively dwelt upon and that Ishii should just go away and make gay porn instead. These people are simply bringing their own agendas to his movie... which I suppose might, to an extent, answer my own question. Maybe homosexuality made the film more controversial and talked about? Or to suggest another theory, maybe it's also that bleak gangster movies with a subtext of women's issues aren't as popular with general audiences as nearly identical films starring men?
It's also worth pointing out that extraordinarily for an Ishii movie, there's no real nudity. A knife-wielding gay hustler (Masahiro Motoki) does a slow strip and I suppose that might have been a breast we glimpsed in the rape scene, but this isn't a flesh flick.
The main character is Koichi Sato, who owns a disco and is in debt to the yakuza. When Japan's economic bubble popped in the early 1990s, business collapsed. This is a film rooted strongly in economic downturn, with Naoto Takenaka playing an unbalanced pipsqueak who couldn't cope with losing his job and is now the biggest loser in a movie full of them. He's got a lethal dose of testosterone poisoning, but he wouldn't last five seconds in a real fight. Anyway, Sato has a thoroughly unpleasant day in which he meets any number of useless, strutting dicks (some yakuza and some not), at the end of which he decides that he's going to have to steal the money he needs...
...from the yakuza. Yes, that's right. Sato's going to lead his improvised gang into their headquarters, shove guns in their faces and take their money. The job turns ugly, but even if it hadn't, this still wouldn't have been a great idea.
The story that flows from this is unpleasant. What happens to their women and children is sufficiently horrific that the "rape to death" scene isn't the worst thing to happen to them. Revenge and payback fall like autumn leaves, until eventually we're seeing thrice-rebounded payback and it's clear that Ishii thinks these people as ridiculous as I did. There are dreamlike scenes representing the characters' mental state and aren't meant to be taken literally. There's even one revelation so terrible that my mind overloaded rather than process it and for some time afterwards I was trying to work out what alternatives there might be to the implied one.
The cast is high-profile. Takeshi Kitano of course is internationally famous, although here he and Kazuya Kimura are an oddly underwhelming pair of hitmen. They're not scary. They just turn up and shoot you. However there's also Koichi Sato, whom I like a lot and is every bit as solid here as always. Masahiro Motoki surprised me, since he's playing a flamboyant knife-wielding gay thug and yet the last time I saw him he was the cello-playing funeral worker in Japan's Oscar-winning Departures
. (You'd think he was better suited to the latter, but he's excellent here too.) An 11-year-old Chiaki Kuriyama (Battle Royale
, Kill Bill
) gets a cameo. Weirdest of all though for me was Naoto Takenaka, whom I didn't recognise at all despite the fact that he has a highly distinctive energy and he seems to crop up in everything. Mutant Girls Squad, RoboGeisha, Cyborg She
, Crab Goalkeeper
, The Great Yokai War, Swing Girls
, By Player
, Sakuya: Slayer of Demons
Incidentally Takenaka's first film was Molester Train: Underwear Inspection (1984). The imdb review I saw said it's good.
Oh, and Kitano's eye patch here is real. He wasn't wearing it for the role, but because this was his first film after his 1994 motorcycle accident and his right eye was still leaking fluid.
Did I enjoy this film? Hmmm. I don't know if you're even meant to enjoy Ishii. His characters are rarely likeable and he's mostly interested in doing bad things to them and watching them break. This lot are no less hard to embrace than normal, especially early on when no one seems capable of any mode of interaction except abuse, violence, stupidity and pointlessly demeaning language. I hated them all, frankly. Later I thawed somewhat, but even so at the end of the day this is still a movie about gangsters, walking failures and other dysfunctional males doing self-destructive things. There are a million films like that, but most of them are nearly brainless. That's one thing I'd never say of Ishii.