Smoking (2018)

An unlikely group of assassins work together to give various petty gangsters their come-uppance in this blackly comic crime series. Sabe (Ryo Ishibashi), Hifumin (Kaito Yoshimura), Goro (Tomomi Maruyama) and Haccho (Nobuaki Kaneko) are four homeless individuals who provide a service to those with the money to pay; namely killing gangsters and other ne’er-do-wells. Their gimmick is that Sabe, who has some medical training, flays the tattoos off their victims backs, delivering them as grisly proof that they have eliminated their target. As the series progresses we learn that Sabe was formerly employed by a shady organization known as The Cleaner, who also specialised in underworld killings. The other three members of his team, the mute teen Hirofumin, intelligent and kind; the heavyweight prize-fighter Goro, whose terrifying proportions strike fear in their victims; and the sharply dressed Haccho, each have their own tragic backstory that brought them together one by one to form this team known as “Smoking”.

The story is based on a manga by Iwaki Hiroshi and its origins show in the colourful characters and outrageous set-ups for each episode. The four leads are almost heroic archetypes, a sort of super team all bringing their unique skills to the mix. The series is twelve episodes, each under a half an hour, in which they are usually presented with a new job to undertake. As the series progresses we learn more about each character, and the over-arching story of The Cleaner and Sabe’s past bring some unity to the story as they are all drawn into a violent showdown with this gang. There is plenty to enjoy in “Smoking” if you don’t take things too seriously. The set-ups are ridiculous, taking real world criminal activity and exaggerating it into something more fantastical. Examples of this include a gang that has an entire hospital full of elderly people who they have hooked on drugs; or an underground martial arts betting ring, where the fighters are also pumped full of narcotics before beating each other to death. The idea of peeling off the tattoos of each victim is a unique touch, showing that our protagonists are just as brutal as the irredeemable gangsters they take down. The four leads are perfect in their roles. Ryo Ishibashi (Suicide Club, Audition) lends an air of credibility to the outlandish story. Kaito Yoshimura (Love and Other Cults) does a good job as the largely silent and sympathetic Hifumin. Tomomi Maruyama and Nobuaki Kaneko are no stranger to television dramas and do a great job with the roles of Haccho and Goro, offering much of the comedy in their bickering and both excelling when their stories take a dark and tragic turn.

“Smoking” occasionally suffers from certain limitations of television drama and budget constraints. The pacing is uneven at times; perhaps unsurprising since each episode has to be wrapped up in such a short time. This could perhaps have been helped by running some of the stories over multiple episodes. It certainly helps build tension later in the series when we begin to get recurring characters and the semblance of an over-arching plot. Often there will be little discussion of what their plan is, which makes things seem matter-of-course and again does little to provide a sense of threat. Often the characters will put themselves in dangerous situations that draws their intelligence into question. These are clearly televisual shortcuts to ramp up a sense of danger, or bring all the required characters together in a particular place, but again it undermines any real sense of threat. This is not always the case and there are episodes that work very well in the short episodic format, such as the MMA betting ring episode. The direction and look of the show can also be hit and miss, with stylish shots and moments reminiscent of heroic crime dramas followed by very mundane scenes of the characters in their makeshift home, or out on the streets. It excels when it strives for a manga aesthetic and this is definitely something that could have been more prominent. The series is clearly set in a hyper-stylised version of reality, so trips itself up in going for a more believable look at times.

Crime thrillers usually follow either the cops or the criminals, whereas “Smoking” follows a group who are somewhere on the border between good and evil. On the surface their actions are horrific, killing and skinning their victims, but they are doing it for the greater good by ridding the city of violent gangsters. As Sabe flays his victims he usually delivers a short speech about peeling away their skin to reveal the monster within. It is a show that asks us to question our understanding of crime and society. The tattoos that mark these individuals are a sign of their criminality, but their sins cannot be so easily stripped away as their flesh. As things progress our natural sympathy with the protagonists is strengthened as we learn about what brought them together, each having had dealings with some criminal element. The central premise, of a group who are paid to kill gangsters, suggests an interesting irony in how we deal with crime in society. By doing this work, dealing out this punishment, that may be deemed good or even necessary, they are lowering themselves into the mud along with their victims, becoming the very monsters they are trying to eliminate. “Smoking” is well worth a watch for fans of crime dramas, with an excellent cast and a story that is fast-paced and packed with melodrama.

Suicide Club (2001) by Sion Sono

When a group of fifty-four high school girls unexpectedly throw themselves off a platform at Shinjuku station into the path of an oncoming train, detectives are called on to investigate. Kuroda (Ryo Ishibashi), the detective leading the operation is baffled by these apparently senseless deaths. The main theory appears to be the existence of a suicide cult that young people are mysteriously drawn to. The detectives are then contacted by a hacker calling herself The Bat (Yoko Kamon), who tells them there is a website where they can see red and white circles symbolising men and women who have died. Disturbingly, the dots appear before the suicides. The detectives also discover pieces of skin from the victims, sewn together and wrapped up in long roll. As the suicides show no sign of decreasing, the police face a race against time to uncover the cause. Characters soon uncover  more worrying connections: with a violent underground group led by a man calling himself Genesis (Rolly), and a quintuplet of pre-teen pop idols named Dessert.

Writer-director Sion Sono presents a pitch-black satire about the state of modern society, with elements of graphic horror, police mystery and social commentary. Viewers should be advised that the film is incredibly gory in parts, with liberal use of blood, a macabre plot-point involving a roll of strips of flesh cut from victims, suggestions of animal cruelty, and visceral, grotesque scenes that will stay with you for a long time. While this extreme approach undoubtedly contains an element of childish glee in seeing how many disgusting and bloody scenarios you can show on screen, they are rarely needless. The gut-churning horror is done with the intent to provoke not only a physical but an emotional response, to shock a jaded public into understanding the severity of suicide (something which is often in danger of being trivialised both in society and media). There is no quiet end for these characters, who explode in fountains of gore, while onlookers scream in impotent terror. The film really has one major goal, to satirise a culture that prides itself on collectivism, and following the crowd, that has become hypnotised by banal and childish entertainment to the neglect of thought and individuality. The film manages to step neatly from graphic violence to more emotionally charged scenes where characters are struck with the realisation that they may be partly or wholly to blame for the horror of their situation. In particular, Ryo Ishibashi does a fantastic job of a complex character. The film also has its surreal moments, such as the gang of sadists who perform an impromtu musical number in their underground bowling alley hideout, or the spine-chilling voice of the youngster who calls the detectives to berate them following another death. The film slides easily between its various tones and while it may seem at first to be an exploitative gore-fest, it is actually surprisingly compassionate in its portrayal of suicide. The black humour is largely reserved in the build-up to the deaths, and seems to be mocking not only the commercialised society that alienates people from themselves and others (the film’s main target); but also ridiculing the simplistic explanations put forward by the police. The score by Tomoki Hasegawa helps in establishing a tone that is able to keep up with the film’s shifting tones, and often keys the audience into when the film is being sincere or playful.

The film is intended as a message to the audience to wake up and live your life, rather than following the herd. The film is about discovering your individuality and bemoaning the collectivism that leads to depression and suicide. The film’s commentary on the problem of suicide is wide-ranging and there are many subtle moments that may be missed in a first viewing. This include notions of childhood and adolescence. The pop idol group “Dessert” who play a pivotal role have an average age of 12.5, putting them at the beginning of puberty. While the first group we see commit mass suicide are just slightly older females, suggesting that the film is also taking a swipe at the problems and pressures that can assail young people, especially girls at that age. When the character of Mitsuko arrives at the theatre at the end to be questioned by an audience of children, the film again seems to be hinting at some disconnect between the adult world, with its responsibilities and conditions, and the world the children inhabit, which is free of such things. “Suicide Club” is a film with a bold message, that revels in provoking and pricking the conscience of the audience.

G@me (2003) by Satoshi Isaka

Sakuma (Naohito Fujiki) is a well-to-do young businessman at a marketing company, living the highlife with a penthouse apartment and a fancy car. He is suave and confident, delivering pitches for his company with consummate ease. His latest project is for Mikado Beer, for whom he is developing a festival-cum-amusement park concept in Odaiba. When the president of Mikado, Katsuragi (Ryo Ishibashi), decides to shut down the project, feeling it’s not in touch with their image, Sakuma takes it as a personal slight from the wealthy mogul. While wandering past Katsuragi’s house one night he sees a young woman jumping the fence. Following her, she tells him that she is Katsuragi’s daughter Juri (Yukie Nakama) from an affair he had years ago. She has moved in with them following her mother’s death but wants to get away, feeling she doesn’t fit in. Juri suggests to Sakuma that they fake her kidnapping and extort money from her father, splitting the money. Hesitant at first, Sakuma agrees to go along with this, seeing it as a way of getting back at Katsuragi. Things don’t go to plan when Sakuma and Juri begin to develop feelings for one another, and secrets are revealed.

Based on a novel by Higashino Keigo and directed by Satoshi Isaki, “G@me” is a stylish crime caper with a heavy helping of romance. The film opens with stunning shots of the Tokyo skyline and into Sakuma’s apartment, where we see him lying prone on the floor, with his narration furthering the noir aesthetic. The film has a glossy sheen, with the characters playing for high-stakes, large sums of money and (perhaps more importantly for them) their own reputations and egos. The plot is slightly silly and requires some suspension of disbelief that every element of the various schemes goes exactly to plan. But this is not a film to let something like logic get in the way of a good story. Naohito Fujiki and Yukie Nakama give great performances as the wannabee scammers with an uneasy relationship. Ryo Ishibashi is the perfect hardnosed businessman with a sinister air who becomes Sakuma’s nemesis. The film has more than a couple of surprises, with the twists and turns of the plot becoming increasingly unlikely as they become more enjoyable. There is rarely a sense of danger in the film, despite things taking a darker turn in the second half. This is partly down to the mixed narrative, one of the fake kidnapping plot and one the burgeoning relationship between the couple. The more serious aspects are brushed over and what is left is a fun mystery thriller whose momentum keeps people from asking too many questions.

The film develops the popular crime theme of deception, with double-cross upon double-cross and nobody’s motives or actions being entirely what they seem. Much like its characters the film is pretty shallow, with both the crime story and the relationship drama not moving much beyond plot drivers. The fake kidnapping is a solid premise and the two actors do a great job, but as things progress it is a case of diminishing returns as it goes from stylish thriller to farcical crime caper when they try to recover the money. Sakuma’s reasons for getting involved, either the money or the girl, seem poorly thought out for a man who is clearly intelligent and already living in relative luxury. The sleek look of the film and pulp crime novel pacing ensure that it is never a dull ride though. “Game” is an entertaining film with two charismatic leads and a plot that keeps you guessing right until the end.