Bad Lands (2023) by Masato Harada

Sakura Ando and Ryosuke Yamada star as step-siblings who become involved in the violent underworld in this crime drama. Neri (Ando) works as part of a gang defrauding vulnerable people, under the auspices of the ex-Yakuza Takagi (Namase Katsuhisa). She lives a rough life in a slum in Osaka, surrounded by fellow homeless and societal drop-outs, after leaving Tokyo many years before. When her brother Yashiro (Yamada) is released from jail, she asks Tamaki to give him a position in the organization. Tamaki has plans of his own, taking on a hit job and accumulating gambling debts with disreputable individuals. Nira is drawn into this while also facing the prospect of a violent billionaire (Yasushi Fuchikami) who is tracking her down. All the while the police are on the trail, attempting to piece together evidence to take down the fraud ring.

“Bad Lands”, based on Hiroyuki Kurokawa’s 2015 novel “Keiso” (“Weeds”) and directed by Masato Harada (Hell Dogs) is a complex crime thriller with a large cast of characters and several plot threads twisted together. At its heart is Sakura Ando’s Neri, whose criminal work comes more through necessity than choice. Ando is excellent in the role, with her acerbic retorts to her male accomplices and her simmering resentment and trauma that has pushed her to this point. It is clear that the film is based on a novel with the interconnecting stories often feeling a little shoehorned in, the main plot following Neri and Yashiro, while sub-plots involving Neri’s past and the ongoing police investigation could have formed whole films by themselves. However, this large canvas approach does create a real-world feel that the film capitalises on, particularly early on as we see the gang attempt to take down a score in public, with every extra a potential witnesses, co-conspirator, or police officers. The whole supporting cast do a great job, with scene stealers such as Ryudo Uzaki’s Mandala, an ex-Yakuza who now spends his days drinking and gambling. A classical soundtrack and allusions to Dostoevsky and Hegel give the film an air of sophistication amongst the low-lifes and thugs who populate its world.

In an over two-hour run-time the film manages to cram in so many characters and stories that it is hard to pick out a single overarching message. Neri and Yashiro are understandably made somewhat sympathetic despite their actions, while the rest of the people around them are variously depicted as despicable leeches who attempt to profit off the misery of others, or those unfortunates who society has let fall off at the lower end. The most reprehensible charater is without doubt Yasushi Fuchikami’s sadistic CEO, who abuses women physically and sexually and lacks any moral compass. In a world in which such an individual can become an ultra-wealthy and highly-respected company boss, is it any wonder that brutality and avariciousness typify the lower orders as well. The moral choices presented to the characters may be black and white to many, but the film offers shades of grey too. The police investigation is hindered by higher-ups wishing to protect certain connections they have with the gang bosses they are there to keep in check; while those at the bottom show certain values of trust, loyalty and compassion that are admirable and notably absent from the people society asks us to respect. A fun, complex crime drama with a superb cast of characters that gives an insight into the increasingly stratified society of modern Japan.

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.