I didn't enjoy it, but I don't think it deserves the dismissals I've seen everywhere else.
The first thing you need to know is that it's a Takashi Ishii film. In other words, it's as cold as an asteroid floating in the depths of space and has as much emotional connection as a Cyberman. This is normal. Ishii's like that. What's different this time unfortunately is that he's gone one step beyond this and now we don't know the cast at all. Only Ken Ogata gets enough character establishment for us to feel we know who he is, although to make up for that his is extremely solid. The others are just faces. They're involved in the plot and their actors clearly understand their background and motivation, but we don't know their names and you'd need to have been paying obsessive attention to be able to tell who's who. We don't even hear any names until the halfway point.
At that stage, this is what I'd picked up:
(a) Ken Ogata is a quiet little man who's gone nuts. We got to know him in a long pre-credits sequence, giving his wife a lovely evening and spending lots of money on her. On getting home, we learn that he's in debt with the yakuza. What happens after that is horrendous and you're entirely in sympathy with Ogata from then on, despite the fact that it's arguably all his fault in the first place and furthermore he might have lost his mind.
(b) there's an unsuccessful prostitute whom we first meet making embarrassing efforts to pretend to be a schoolgirl.
(c) a woman has nightmares about a rapist.
(d) a woman (possibly two) has some kind of criminal plan and might be in league with the yakuza.
(e) a woman is being cheated on by her husband.
Almost none of those people are introduced properly. We simply see them. We don't know their names. We don't know how they connect with each other, or with any kind of storyline. Ogata appears to be the main character, except that he's not because the film's called Gonin 2 (i.e. "Five People 2"), which in English has sometimes been translated as "Five Women". Presumably then we're meant to wait for a gang of women to start fighting yakuza.
This doesn't happen for a long time. This movie would have done better with a title that didn't set up audience expectations. Instead the movie's big turning point involves an attempted robbery on a jeweller's, which is a bit of a disaster and ends up with five women having thrown themselves on a criminal bandwagon. They're not professional crooks. One's a housewife, while another's that aforementioned prostitute. They're excited by what they've just done, but unfortunately they've also made enemies out of monsters who'll kill anyone and everyone. The rest of the film unfolds from there.
I've already complained about the title. I'd like to go one further and complain about any attempt to call it "Five Women". Just as Takashi Ishii was flexible about who might be a Black Angel
, I think an important part of this film is the fluidity of the Gonin. They're not gangsters or hitmen. They're certainly not the first Gonin
's Gonin. They're just ordinary people, which I'm sure will have been a disappointment for those who were hoping for badass yakuza bloodbaths. Admittedly we end up in a cold-bloodedly efficient place that looks like an inspiration for the Black Angel movies, just as Black Angel 2
contained the seeds of Freeze Me
, but it's fundamental to the movie that these aren't the Dirty Dozen. They can drop out or betray each other. They can die. Nevertheless the Gonin as a group sort of survives, this improvised community of mostly ordinary people, even if to say this eventually means stretching our definition of a "person".
I think that's crucial, actually. This movie couldn't be called likeable, but it's only fair to do it at least the courtesy of respecting the story it's telling.
The movie's content is standard Takashi Ishii. There's rape, torture, nudity and a ton of killing. The yakuza are vile thugs who'd do anything to anyone and deserve no less in return. Sex is a weapon. Warmth and humanity will be punished. All this is bleak and kind of depressing, although oddly you could also argue that it has one of his happier endings. Ishii doesn't really do "happy", you see. I think I'd call it film noir, if not "film jet-noir".
It gets more straightforwardly entertaining in the last fifteen minutes, mind you. Also the pigeons might be a homage to Hong Kong cinema, although there I'm speculating.
Despite the title, it's nothing like the original (and more successful) Gonin once you've got past Ishii's trademark style. I couldn't call it fun. Halfway through, I didn't understand who was doing what to whom. I understood that the raid on the jeweller's had gone wrong, but I'd also decided that Ishii's usual detachment from his characters had crossed a line into not portraying them in the first place. The actors are doing a sterling job, especially Ken Ogata, and I suspect that repeat viewings would make the movie unfold for the audience in a way it doesn't on first exposure... but at the end of the day, this movie is hard work to watch. The women's characterisation is thin, to be honest, and the actresses' integrity can only carry this so far. Almost everyone's unsympathetic. Even the nudity is either underwhelming or disturbing. It has all Ishii's usual dark style, but you're going to have to come a long way to meet him on it.
That said, it's a film that will stay with me. I might well do that rewatch one day. I have deeper respect (and indeed tolerance) for Ishii than most people do, though.