Grasshopper (2015) by Tomoyuki Takimoto

Following the death of his girlfriend a man becomes entangled in a dark, underground world of drug gangs and assassins. On Halloween night in Shibuya a car ploughs into the crowd killing a young woman named Yuriko (Haru). Distraught at her untimely death, her boyfriend Suzuki (Toma Ikuta) goes undercover with a pharmeceutical company that is a front for a malicious gang run by Terahara (Renji Ishibashi). Suzuki’s boss, Sumire (Kumiko Aso) is a sadistic femme fatale who soon becomes suspicious of Suzuki’s intentions. Meanwhile, hired killer Kujira (Tadanobu Asano) who forces people to commit suicide for Terahara is troubled by the sins of his past. Becoming a liability to the gang he is targetted by fellow assassins Iwanishi (Jun Murakami) and Semi (Ryosuke Yamada).

Based on the novel by Kotaro Isaka, “Grasshopper” is a noir thriller that sets up several great characters. We are sympathetic to Suzuki’s quest for revenge and his complete inadequacy in going up against hardened killers and gangsters. Saccharine flashbacks of him and Yuriko often feel at odds with the violent tone of the film, but do create a clear distinction between the world he has lost and the one he finds himself thrust into. Tadanobu Asano’s Kujira has perhaps the most intriguing backstory, troubled by the ghosts of his victims who appear before him; it is a similar tale with Semi, who suffers a ringing in his ears that is only calmed when he is killing. There is a slight imbalance in tone and story that runs through the film, with the characters jostling for the position of protagonist and it lurches from the brutal fight sequences and grim life of Kujira to the more incompetent amateur detective antics of Suzuki. Suzuki remains the protagonist, but the film sets up these two interesting assassins that feel as thought they deserve their own film. The film also introduces fantasy elements that are creative, but never fully developed as an integral part of the story. These shifts in tone are also present in the eclectic score, with a mix of operatic, hard rock and soft piano. However, despite these inconsistencies the film creates some incredible moments, particularly in the fight sequences and chase through the streets. Director Tomoyuki Takimoto crafts a stylish crime drama and the noir tone is handled expertly with rain drenched, neon lit streets, and dark alleyways.

A hugely entertaining noir thriller with great visuals and a collection of fantastic characters. Suzuki is an everyman hero whose search for revenge is charming and understandable. There is contrast between Suzuki who is desperate for revenge but unable to attain it and Kujira and Semi (the only other characters whose names appear on screen), hardened killers who are made to question their profession. Suzuki’s unsuitability as a killer is a weakness in the world he finds himself in, but is also what makes him a decent man. He is a relatable protagonist preciscely because he is unable to imagine himself killing anyone. The fates of Kujira and Semi offer an oddly moralistic but understandable ending when considering the rights and wrongs of the characters. At times it feels like these three characters should not exist in the same film, but that creates a fantastic tension that builds to a stunning conclusion.

Baby Assassins (2021) by Yugo Sakamoto

Two high-school assassins attempt to develop covers as ordinary members of society in this action-comedy. Mahiro (Saori Izawa) and Chisato (Akari Takaishi) are skilled killers but lack any knowledge of the real world, having comfortably managed to maintain a front as high-schoolers while they carry out jobs for their mysterious employer, a man who delivers targets to them from time to time. They are told that they should move in together and start looking for part-time work, a prospect which doesn’t appeal to either of the girls. As they struggle to adapt, with Mahiro failing a series of interviews, and Chisato finding employment in a maid cafe, a fresh threat appears in the shape of a violent Yakuza boss and his children.

Written and directed by Yugo Sakamoto, your enjoyment of “Baby Assassins” will vary based on the mileage you get out of the comedic premise: the juxtaposition of hardened, efficient killers and absent-minded, socially-awkward teens. This whiplash from murder to mundanity provides much of the humour, with one scene showing them disposing of a corpse before moving immediately onto worrying if they have time to make the film they have tickets to. “Baby Assassins” wastes no time and at just over 90 minutes, it moves at a lively pace. This is understandable as the story is simplistic and the sadistic Yakuza villain is such a familiar archetype he hardly needs much introduction. The highlight of the film is the relationship between Chisato and Mahiro, with fantastic performances from Akari Takaishi and Saori Izawa. They capture the bored teen mindset and also look extremely competent in the action sequences, shifting seamlessly from cold-blooded murder to everyday concerns about ruining their clothes. This relationship also provides the emotional heart of the film as their differences lead to confrontation between them. Mahiro is introverted and slightly less well-suited to adult life, while Chisato is more bright and cheerful, easily able to adapt to part-time work at a maid cafe. The action sequences, courtesy of stunt director Kensuke Sonomura are gory and energetic, with emphasis again on the humour rather than any serious consequences, showcasing the girls’ training and utilising gun-fu and hand-to-hand combat. The final third is taken up with a highly entertaining takedown of the Yakuza orginization, which comedically undermines this fairly stereotypical third-act sequence by having the girls comfortably dispatch most of them, completely emasculating the hard ganster aesthetic. This ease in which the killings sometimes proves a double-edged sword, providing a few laughs at the casual way the girls deal with their targets, but also leaving little time for any real tension. This is most apparent in a scene in which two major villains are dispatched, their deaths used as a gag that comes as a surprise but leaves you feeling that the film has robbed you of a more significant confrontation between the heroes and villains.

“Baby Assassins” is a fun take on both the assassin genre and the teen friendship movie, running these parallel stories of Mahiro and Chisato attempting to get along as well as the background evil of the Yakuza. The best scenes are in the maid-cafe with Chisato taking to it easily, while Mahiro is visibly uncomfortable with attempting to present a cheerful face to the public. There is a subtle satire on the current state of work and how young people are supposed to adapt to society, brought out when the girls speak with the maid cafe staff. The top maid is amazed that they have so much money for lunch, barely able to afford a decent meal herself. The girls are financially stable through their assassination work, part of the reason why the jobs they are applying for hold so little interest for them. It is not something the film dwells on, but it certainly makes you wonder whether a world in which murder is remunerated far better than almost any other job is one that is functioning correctly. There is also a feminist bent to the film, with the young women being constantly underestimated by their targets, which makes it even easier for the girls to kill them. The film sets up two entertaining characters, with enjoyable central performances, and it is a film that lends itself perfectly to sequels. While the film is light on story, it works well as an introduction to the characters and world and it would be great to see more of them.

Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000)

Two assassins meet unexpectedly when they are both contracted to kill the same man. After realising that they were actually childhood friends, they decide to escape from the city and return to the island where they were brought up, visiting a third friend who is now living there with his pregnant wife. After their respite the two decide to return to the metropolis and use their skills as professional killers to benefit orphans in the third world, by sending the money they make overseas. This soon brings them back into contact with the violent gangs they had previously escaped.

After the grotesque comedy of the first Dead or Alive film, this is a much more sedate affair. There is still puerile humour, sex, violence, and quirky storytelling with bizarre plot twists, but throughout is a strong central theme helped along by fantastic performances by Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi. The two actors this time play the assassins returning to their hometown, reliving former traumas and triumphs along with their old friend. Both are charismatic and it is good to see them getting more screen time together. The story meanders its way through their reminiscences and may not appeal to those fond of the more frenetic pace of the earlier film, but it does a much better job of creating likeable characters. Takashi Miike brings a visual flair and intelligence to the directing that keep things interesting. There are moments of pure cinema, such as when the characters sprout wings, one black, one white, or when we see feathers falling from nowhere after a murder, or when the characters transform into their childhood selves.

It may seem out of place to have a school play half-way through a film about hit-men, especially one that is juxtaposed with a sex scene and gangland murders in another part of the country, but it typifies what makes this movie great. By creating a powerful contrast between the placid life of the small island community with the horrors of inner-city crime we get a picture of divided characters, contract killers who still retain their basic humanity. The film is essentially about a loss of innocence as we see what these young boys have become, and their attempt to regain that through travelling back to their old town. The plot involving the two killers helping young children out with money through the proceeds of murder is a fairly pointed commentary on what is wrong with society, and done in a way that makes it seem like common sense (why not kill bad guys and give the money to helpless orphans?). It is great to see a film that has the confidence to tell its audience uncomfortable truths, while at the same time not being overly moralistic.