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Review © Mandi Apple, 2005.

Directed by Rokuro Mochizuki, 1995, 105 mins., starring Ryo Ishibashi, Kazuhiko Kanayama, Asami Sawada, Toshiyuki Kitami, Yukio Yamanouchi, and Tatsuo Yamada.

Released in 1995 and predating his best-known movie, Onibi: The Fire Within by a full two years, Rokuro Mochizuki's Another Lonely Hitman (aka Shin Kanashiki Hittoman) could be considered very much to be a companion piece to Onibi. Like his contemporary and admittedly far better-established counterpart, Takashi Miike, It would seem that Mochizuki's personal quest concerning the somewhat formulaic yakuza genre is to take the accepted format and completely stand it on its head.

Another Lonely Hitman is a striking, edgy, shocking, ultraviolent and magnificently unpredictable tour de force: a bizarre cross between an dramatic, rich and rounded characterstudy, and an out-and-out guns-a-blazin' standard-style gangster frenzy. And what's more, it works - unlike Onibi, which tried for a romantic and dramatic twist on the genre formula and somehow failed to capture its target market, Another Lonely Hitman's approach to reformulation is infinitely more subtle, conflicted and complex.

Ryo Ishibashi, playing the 'lonely hitman' of the title and absolutely stealing the show from everyone concerned, is as enthralling and involving as ever, perfectly cast in the role of the reformed and redemptive gangster, imbued with a beautiful, moody and moving tenderness that one doesn't usually find featured in the characterisation of hitmen. According to historical sources, this was the part that originally made him famous throughout Japan , and watching the movie, it's not hard to see why he became an overnight superstar.

Although at times Another Lonely Hitman feels very like a backwards Japanese take on Goodfellas, it's more about morality than that movie. Indeed, it's a grim, heroic tale of salvation, of one man's personal crusade, seeking to reform the moral decay he sees all around him. Desolate, beautiful and both sympathetic and unsympathetic in tone at times, Ishibashi plays a tormented yakuza assassin with a schizophrenic nature - on one hand, a cruel, vile, misogynistic streak, and on the other, a sensitive soul and, what's more, a strong ethical code, enriching what would otherwise be a fairly unpleasant persona and rendering the entire piece thoughtful, intriguing, unique and more profound than most yakuza-eiga could ever aspire to be.

For instance, there's a scene during the midsection of the movie where Ishibashi's character cruelly forces his ex-hooker girlfriend to wet herself because he won't unchain her from the bed, which clearly sours the viewer's feelings towards him; but within another few minutes, when it's made clear that he's got her chained up to try and save her from killing herself with heroin, again you realise that Mochizuki is indeed playing a very deft game with his audience's emotions.

Yet, like Onibi, a criticism I would level at the movie is that visually it lacks flair and anything in the way of a nice visual image or a well-composed shot. There are occasionally some rather nice cityscapes featured, but these are few and far between. And there's virtually no music to prettify the overall effect either, save an infrequent honk or two on a rather too mid-eighties-style saxophone. Also, the pacing is a bit laboured, particularly throughout the middle section of the movie.

So really, the entire film almost completely rests on having a decent storyline, but mostly on Ryo Ishibashi's capable shoulders, and accordingly his performance is never anything less than understatedly beautiful and brilliant. There's an interesting continuation of the water theme which is later reiterated in Onibi : Tachibana, Ishibashi's pivotal character, loves to look at ocean slides, and dreams of leaving the syndicate to become a simple fisherman, demonstrating his traditional, old-fashioned and somehow yearning nature - desperately dreaming of doing something more meaningful with his life, and sad at how so many are also wasting theirs around him.

Frequently Another Lonely Hitman catches the viewer on the back foot: while an empathetic relationship with Tachibana is being built up, scenes of tense, extreme violence and gross-out horror (including, in no order of importance, a man's brains spurting out of his skull all over a tablecloth, Tachibana vomiting onto the camera lens, and beating people to a bloody pulp with a brick, are interspersed among the characterisation sequences, adding a tenet of genuinely unexpected and uneasy shock to proceedings that must keep Miike awake nights. And even more bizarrely, there are also genuine laugh-out-loud moments, which again catch you offguard as they sometimes occur in the most incongruously tense situations.

Synopsis

Tachibana Takashi (Ryo Ishibashi), a brand-new yakuza, takes his very first ever intravenous shot of heroin, in order to give him the courage to go and perform his very first ever hit. He goes into a restaurant and shoots the boss of a rival gang, the Hokushin family with whom his gang, the Hirakawa syndicate, are involved in a war, in the head, in front of everyone. However, he ends up losing considerable face as, being stoned out of his gourd, he does manage to kill the boss, but also ends up shooting the boss's daughter in the leg. Presumably because his hit was so badly tainted by this terrible mistake, he asks a waitress to go and phone the police, which culminates in him being sent to jail for ten years.

When he eventually comes out of prison, he is obviously expected to return to Nishinari and carry on his career as an assassin with his family. However, it's also obvious from the get-go that his time inside has changed him radically as a person. When he is picked up by his gang-brothers, he really suffers from the complete culture-shock of being outside for the first time in ten years, disorientated and confused.

It also transpires that he has nowhere to go: this is because his ex-wife has remarried while he was in jail, and his little girl Tomoko is settled down now, happy with the new, more stable familial situation. This clearly causes him deep pain, but he accedes with his ex's wishes, and walks away. When he does so, however, he finds that one of his gang 'brothers', Takayama Yuji, has been assigned to look after him by the oyabun (big syndicate boss). During the ten years Tachibana was in jail, his gang lost their war with the Hokushin syndicate - but even though the innocent girl's injury lost them face, they regained considerable gangland respect due to the clean kill of the Hokushin big boss.

Now installed with a cash gift from the boss in a fancy hotel, Tachibana 'takes delivery' of a pretty young prostitute, Yuki. But even though she's expert at her job and seems to have a childlike, sweet, happy-go-lucky nature, he is cold and unpleasant to her - whether this is because he really is, as he says, "out of practice", or because he's disoriented and depressed as a result of his current situation, is a moot point. However, he finds himself warming to her in a strange way. It's almost as though he feels fatherly towards her - possibly missing his little daughter? - and he begins to build a loving romantic relationship with her.

When they go their separate ways at the end of the day, though, her pimp, who's secretly watching her, gets upset by the way she's talking to Tachibana, and proceeds to beat her up. Tachibana stands and watches - but in the first real demonstration of his well-hidden soft heart, Tachibana finally gives in and beats the pimp up - who claims to be a high-falutin' and well-respected syndicate member, one of the Hokushin gang. This will no doubt have terrible repercussions for Tachibana.

This event puts Tachibana's bosses in a difficult bind, and he's gotten himself into some bad trouble with them. Of course, after the gang war was lost, his bosses had to come to a truce arrangement with their bitter rivals. But Tachibana is unshakeable in his conviction that he was right to have stuck to the old, traditional principles of the family. Although his direct superiors, Shimoyama and Mizohashi, tell him that there are new anti-organised crime laws which were passed while he was inside and that all the gang members are involved in 'peace diplomacy' for the good of the syndicate, he remains unmoved. It's too unlike what he's used to. Eventually, because he won't back down, it's decided to take the gift money Tachibana was given and use it to pay off the Hokushin gang to atone for the pimp's beating - which makes Tachibana really angry. His sidekick Yuji tries to explain that another war with the Hokushin would really destroy their gang as the Hokushin gang have the weight of two other gangs behind them - the Sato gang and the Dekata gang - but to no avail.

It would also seem that times are rough due to these new laws: there's no work really available for any gang. The best they can cobble together is a bit of porn video business, a bit of debt collection and a bit of not very much else. This is anathema to Tachibana: he is grateful for something to do, but really, extortion with menaces to try to collect tributes is poor and undignified work, even for a jobbing yakuza. And frankly, the money-lending Mizohashi is corrupt and nasty enough on his own terms: he continually offends Tachibana's old-style hitman principles to the max. And talking to his old friend and boss Shimoyama after this revolting meeting, it would seem that he's not the only one who wants to return to the old ways.

It would appear that Tachibana's rash decision to rescue Yuki and beat up the pimp has caused all kinds of bad blood between the Hirakawa and Hokushin syndicates: the Hokushin now want to seize control of the porn-video part of the business, and are also trying to extort protection money from them for it too. It would appear that tensions are building to a point where there may be a second war - which would utterly decimate the already half-ruined Hirakawa gang.

What he also doesn't know is that through his true nemesis Mizohashi's dark dealings, the gangs are now manufacturing and selling heroin injected into cigarettes - so Yuki is still hooked on drugs, which is how they got her onto the game in the first place. And although the old-style gambling dens are still open for business, they're mainly being used for drug dealing by junkies and yakuza. Looks like Tachibana's got a lot of cleaning up to do - not to mention with the bad blood between the two main syndicates getting worse daily, with all kinds of dodgy familial connections springing up as a result of Mizohashi's lies, devious doings and dirty underhandedness.

On his own, it would appear that Tachibana has made a silent promise to himself to rid his own gang of the destructive shadow of drugs, corruption, and domination by the other gangs, and help his family to regain their respect, power and dignity, via the old codes of face and through good old-fashioned brutality. And it would certainly seem possible: he's a charismatic and persuasive character, and easily persuades his sidekick Yuji to become his personal lieutenant.

But with obstacles being constantly placed in his way by the other syndicates, his own bosses pushing him to keep in with the Dekata and Sato gangs who are dealing narcotics, and even the boss overlord giving him grief, how will he ever be able to kick out all the junkies and restore the decaying, narcotic-ridden remnants of his own beloved Hirakawa syndicate to its former glory, let alone save his own skin as he becomes more and more alienated from his own family?

It's not often we're asked to empathize with reckless, hard-faced killers - and it's also not often that we do have that sense of empathy, but which is continually rocked to its foundations by Tachibana's actions, behaviour and own personality. One of his 'colleagues' even says to him, in awe, "You're just like Superman!" and it seems odd that such an anti-hero figure, someone who is a heartless killer, who maims, beats and menaces without batting an eyelash, could be given such a 180-degree spin.

This is a real portrait of a real man who simply cannot change, a traditional and conservative thinker who cannot reconcile himself to the way his family has caved in and lost all its principles, with the crumbling of an old empire. He desperately wants to try and return to the past, which seems more real to him due to all the time he lost while in jail, and to destroy all the changes for the worse he was not around to prevent happening in the first place. In many ways, it's a story about lost time and missed opportunities, and the ensuing consequences. Magnificently moving and noirishly dramatic, Another Lonely Hitman is, for me, one of the best additions to the yakuza-eiga genre ever made.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value - 7/10
Sex – he can't/10 ;-) Viagra would be handy
Violence – squirty brains/10
Giant Jigsaws: 1
Embarrassing moments: Pant-wettingly squirmy
Funny moments: Several, not pant-wetting though
Hankies required: 6/10

Films in a Similar Style: This is not a run-of-the-mill Yakuza movie by any means. Onibi is its evil twin.

*** Recommended ***

This film is being released by Artsmagic in early 2005. Screencaps were taken from a VHS transfer and are of significantly lower quality than the finished article.

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Rokuro Mochizuki
Ryo Ishibashi


Links

http://www.artsmagicdvd.com/ and http://www.artsmagic.co.uk - Artsmagic very kindly provided this movie to us for review, and are due to release the DVD in 2005.
http://filmmonthly.com/Video/Articles/AnotherLonelyHitman/AnotherLonelyHitman.html - positive review from Film Monthly
http://print.google.com/print/doc?articleid=OIULVIZemy - review from Variety

 

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