Friday 15 February 2008

Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl (1998)

For some reason I associated Tadanobu Asano far more with the OCD suicidal librarian from the Thai movie Last Life in the Universe than I did with the over the top sadomasochistic Kakihara in Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer. Maybe it's the hair: it's dark, and it's dark in both the films I got to see on the big screen via projected DVD and courtesy of Midnite Movie Mamacita. Both were astounding, though completely different, and I'll certainly be buying both for future viewing and tracking down anything else featuring the man who must be Japan's hippest actor working today.

Contrary to expectations, Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl is not a bizarre superhero movie and it's a far cry from The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl. It's based on a Minetaro Mochizuki manga and written for the screen by debut director Katsuhito Ishii. Anyone watching in a vacuum would see something stunning, but anyone versed in the work of the various hip directors of the world, from Tarantino to Besson, Jeunet to Aranofsky, John Woo to Wong Kar Wai, will see plenty of influence. Ishii has created something new though, because he's given life to a large and well defined set of characters and will now fit into that pool himself for the next director to be influenced by.

Shark Skin Man is Samehada, a yakuza who has ripped off a large sum of money from his employers and is now on the run for his life from the ruthless Tanuki and his assortment of talented but quirky henchmen. Peach Hip Girl is Toshiko, a young girl who has had enough with working in her uncle's hotel and has run away. Her uncle is the epitome of freakishness in Japanese culture and hires a strange man to bring her back. If you hadn't noticed everyone in this film is strange and that's cool even when some of the characters are not cool. The uncle is certainly not cool and Yamada, the man he hires, is about as unhip as anyone could possibly be, yet Tatsuya Gashuin's portrayal is awesomely cool.

The whole thing works very well, and there are some loops in plot that connect various characters to each other in various ways. The endings are revealing yet vague enough to suggest volumes two through whatever of the manga, and so a potential sequel. The dialogue is Tarantino hip, and in fact more believable here than in some of Tarantino's originals. The cinematography and visual effects are awesome, and often very freaky indeed. The way that scenes are sped up for effect often almost but not quite matches what we'd expect for sped up film, like additional frames were removed just to be random. Very cool.

I'd rave about the actors but I can't remember who played who. Tadanobu Asano is Samehada and Sie Kohinata is Toshiko, but I'd have to cross reference the cool opening credits that name the actors in a modern hip version of the old Warner Brothers openings to find out. The head yakuza is Ittoku Kishibe, who turns into a bird in the second half of this double bill, Survive Style 5+, and who reappears yet again with Asano in Vital, a Shinya Tsukamoto film sitting on my DVR and waiting for my big screen TV so my better half can read the subtitles. They obviously work a lot together and a quick IMDb lookup gives me seven titles. Tatsuya Gashuin is unforgettable as Yamada, half truly inept and half amazingly professional. Everyone else will have to wait for the DVD.

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