Susumu TerajimaIkko SuzukiHiroshi ShimizuHiroyuki Tanaka
Unlucky Monkey
Medium: film
Year: 1998
Writer/director: Hiroyuki Tanaka ["Sabu"]
Keywords: yakuza
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Shin'ichi Tsutsumi, Hiroshi Shimizu, Akira Yamamoto, Ikko Suzuki, Kimika Yoshino, Susumu Terajima, Kanji Tsuda, Diamond Yukai
Format: 106 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0143967/
Website category: Japanese
Review date: 2 August 2010
It's Sabu's third film as writer-director, after Dangan Runner and Postman Blues. I liked both of those films, the latter a lot, but I'm afraid this one lost me. The problem was the unsympathetic protagonists. Sabu's always been walking a tightrope there, making films in which we weren't expected to empathise with the lead characters. Twice he'd got away with this, but for me, this time he fell off.
We have two basic plot strands. The first involves a yakuza again played by Shin'ichi Tsutsumi, who's having a bad day. His problem is that he's an intelligent man who's socially and environmentally aware, so he can't just shrug horrible stuff off. On the contrary, after a while he's cracking up. This is certainly different, but it pretty much negates him as an active protagonist and turns him into a weird scary loser who's just stumbling from one bad situation to another. He's not without virtues, but he's far too self-justifying and unstable for you to care about. On the contrary, if you actually met him in real life, you'd be advised to get as far away from him as possible, at top speed.
The other plot thread involves some even less appealing characters. They're three yakuza with no redeeming features whatsoever. Even the best of them is incompetent, unpleasant and self-glorifying, while one of them is an annoying little blowhard who desperately needs shooting. Sabu is clearly using them to undermine the yakuza mystique, as for instance in the scene where they're bullshitting fit to bust about how glorious it is to be a badass fighting for his life, then become cowering squealing wrecks on being confronted by Japan's least impressive assassin. Theoretically I approve. However in practice Sabu's done so well at making these yakuza look pathetic that I just wanted them dead.
Apart from all that, it's business as usual. Sabu's pulling his usual tricks of outrageous coincidence, black farce and violence. If you don't share my reaction to the protagonists, you'll probably think this is another winner.
Firstly, the quirks of fate are particularly impressive here. The title gives that away, I think. There's a glorious one before the opening credits, but that's far from the end of them. Sabu's universe has an evil sense of whimsy and you wouldn't put money on anyone's chances of survival.
Secondly, the plotting's as unpredictable as ever. If anyone out there claims to have seen the residents' meeting scene coming, that person is either a liar or not living on planet Earth. By the time we reach the finale, in fact, we've gone right past "unpredictable" and have entered the land of "what the hell?" The ending struck me as contrived, to be honest, and I don't know whether we're meant to be taking it as far-fetched, metaphorical, fantasy and/or a hallucination. We've definitely seen hallucination sequences by this point. If that weren't true, this would be a zombie movie. The "click click blam" in particular is deliberately stretching one's view of fate to breaking point, either saying that there's a higher power intervening in the lives of mortals or that sheer ghastly coincidence will have the same effect. It's an interesting thematic development in the Sabu-verse, anyway.
It's rich in irony. Listen to what Shin'ichi Tsutsumi says in his opening monologue. Everything he says is true, from the fact that there are indeed three guards at the bank today to the way in which criminals screw it up for themselves. Only a few minutes after intellectualising about how easy it is to be an idiot over evidence, fingerprints and so on, he's doing exactly the same thing himself. Then at the other end of the film, look at the idiot yakuza trying to look cool by lighting a cigarette. He wants to capture the cliched moment, but the movie's universe is torturing him even over that.
One scene I think doesn't work. Tsutsumi gets a big internal monologue that's done by voice-over, which I think demonstrates that it's better just to let your actors talk in front of the camera. However the scene ends up going somewhere that couldn't have been done without the voice-over, so I'm not going to get too purist about that.
This I think is what happens when a Sabu film doesn't work. He's still got a good hit rate as far as I'm concerned, but this time for me it turned out too unsympathetically. The main characters are either unpleasant, scary or mentally unstable. I didn't even care about the guy who turned suicidal, since he kept relying on outside agencies to do the job for him instead of doing something about it himself. However I did laugh at the movie's more outrageous quirks of fate, while you've got to admire the horror of what gets inflicted on Tsutsumi's character. You can't say he didn't earn it, but it's still ghastly. Overall I'd reluctantly have to come down in favour of calling the movie a failure, but it's also quite an interesting one that's pushing forward Sabu's worldview and philosophy of filmmaking. I'm still looking forward to the next one, anyway.