Revisiting Takashi Ishii's "Gonin"
Regarding the state of Japanese cinema, the 1996 Oxford History of World Cinema issued this lament:
"The condition of Japanese cinema in the 1990's is still unhealthy... There is a danger that theatrical Japanese cinema may disappear altogether...the situation has become so difficult that film can no longer be produced with the creative freedom enjoyed by directors of the New Wave."
Wow. Either the editors were incredibly out of touch, the anthology out of date or the Japanese renaissance just hitting more mainstream film critics. In any case, the '90s was the time for Japanese film. And though some at this point have nearly tired of the obsession with J-horror, J-anything, it's nice to reflect back when we couldn't wait to see what was next. There's nothing like discovering an entire country of cinema and becoming so damn excited about each and every avant-garde offering.
This brought me to one of my favorites of the era, Takashi Ishii's Gonin (The Five), a stylized neo-noir yakuza fable that, though rife with horrifying, powerful violence, contains a touching story about two lovers who happen to be gay. Why don't films like this play at Outfest?
The story takes five outlaws who threaten Japan's traditional gangster establishment by concocting a heist that inevitably goes awry--incredibly awry. Led by Bandai (Koichi Sato), a young and handsome gay disco owner who is up to his eyeballs in debt, the gang includes Jimmy (Kippei Shiina), a pimp; Hizu (Jinpachi Nezu), an ex-police officer; Ogiwara (Naoto Takenaka), a crazed businessman who has recently lost his job; and Mitsuya (Masahiro Motoki), a beautiful male prostitute who becomes Bandai's lover.
The five succeed in getting the money, but they don't get away with it. Stalked by a pair of hit men (Japanese master Takeshi "Beat" Kitano and Kazuya Kimura, who also play gay lovers) hired by the yakuza, the five systematically meet their fate through acts of gorgeously sick violence. In fact, the bloodshed is so personally brutal that the characters become expressionistic figures: desperate men in desperate love who must search their souls as their souls leave their bodies.
While the picture is potently atmospheric in standard neo-noir fashion, with blue and red neon lights, rain-washed urban streets and subterranean disco joints, it's also intensely modern. The eye-popping, blood-drenched cinematography is garishly beautiful, like a sublime, arty comic book (Ishi was a manga artist). Gonin is also clearly referential. In style and in substance, Gonin reveals influences ranging from Scorsese's Mean Streets to Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns (which were influenced by Japanese masters themselves). And like French New Wave director Jean-Pierre Melville's seminal Le Samourai, Gonin works a detached iciness, making the gunfire all the more shocking and laconic characters all the more mysterious, confusing and in some cases, psychopathic. And yet all of these men become sympathetic and symbolic--they're more than mere violent killers.
Even more emblematic of Gonin's brilliance is Kitano's expressionless hit man. Wearing a gray suit and a gauze patch over one eye, Kitano is so precise, so clean and so indestructible that I couldn't help but, well idolize him--even if he's a Terminator-like monster. Representing the self-created nightmare from which one cannot escape, he is the cruel gun of fate, that apocalyptic horseman one can never imagine until he enters the room. And how Kitano can enter a room.
Both Kitano and Ishii crafted dark cinematic worlds that were beacons of light, guiding Japanese cinema out of supposed oblivion. A monumental time, a monumental work.