Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl (1998)

It’s hard to find a crime drama that came out in the five-year span after Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction that wasn’t directly or indirectly influenced by them, and this goes for Japanese crime dramas as well. Case in point, Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, a wild rock n’ roll ride with a wordy title that is obviously influenced by Tarantino, although a comparison to a Guy Ritchie film might be more apt, as Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl moves at a frenetic pace, and sports a cast of wild, crazy, buffoonish, cartoonish, and violent characters. However, Snatch came out around the same time, and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels was still a year away when Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl came out, so there’s no way of knowing if the influence is there. Regardless, the spirit is.

The Plot.

SSM&PHG is the surrealist story of Momojiri (“Peach Hip”, or "Peach ass" if you prefer) Toshiko (played by Shie Kohinata - an actress who doesn't seem to have done much before or after this role), a youngish girl held as an employed captive by her creepy uncle Sonezaki, played by Shimada Yohachi (Party 7) at the rundown hotel “Symphonia” in an undetermined mountainous area somewhere in rural Japan. Toshiko implements a plan to run away from her disturbed uncle and is finally on the road when she is distracted from her drive by a guy fleeing past her car naked but for his tighty whities.  This underwear clad guy is a good-natured bad guy by the name of Samehada ("Sharkskin"), played by Asano Tadanobu (Party 7, Ichi the Killer). Samehada stole some money from this yakuza group he worked for, and seems to be haphazardly fleeing without much in the way of an escape plan. Fortunately for him, and not so much for Toshiko, she rams into the pursuing vehicle filled with Yakuza, flipping their car and knocking her unconscious.  Samehada quickly commandeers Toshiko's damaged car (with her unconscious still inside), and the chase is on. When Samehada and Toshiko hit the road, bullets and knives fly, and we are introduced to director Katsuhito Ishii’s crazy cast of characters.

Chasing the young lovers is Samehada's former mentor and partner Sawada (Played by yakuza film perennial Susumu Terajima of Gonin 2, Ichi the Killer, Sonatine, and Brother), and Mr. Tanuki, played by Ittoku Kishibe (Another Battle, Violent Cop), and his crew of fashion show rejects, all with odd mannerisms and “Royale with cheese” dialogue fit for a Quentin Tarantino movie. Among the nutty collection of Yakuza crew members we have Mr. Tanuki's neurotic and apprehensive driver Sorimachi, played by Ko Takasugi, the boss's psychotic brat son Mitsuru, played by Tsurumi Shingo (Dead or Alive), strongman Taniguchi, played by Yamada Shingoro, and a baseball bat wielding guy who seems to be suffering from multiple sclerosis name Inuzuka, played by Horibe Keisuke (Party 7), and a whole host of others.

We already know pretty much up front that this band of yakuza misfits is no match for Samehada. That being said, it’s also obvious that Samehada’s lack of a plan to get away with the stolen cash all but guarantees that they’ll catch up with him eventually. Thrown into the chase is Yoshiko’s perverted uncle and his twisted little buddy turned hitman, Yamada, played with disturbing levity by Tatsuya Gasyuin (Party 7), who complicates things for both sides.

The Violent Rundown.

On top of all the other fun, there is a lot of violence in the movie, all of which I dutifully recorded for you. About 17 shootings (including two off screen), two knifings (thrown or otherwise), around four off screen beatings, and a couple on screen beatings, including one with a baseball bat, and a head bashed with a stereo. The violence is more of the black comedy variety, and has no actual impact considering all of the actors are essentially playing over-the-top live action cartoon characters, which keeps it all fun and games in the end.  Suffice it to say, director Ishii doesn't let realism get in the way of the fun.

The Final Verdict.

The move itself looks good (although with the dark and grainy late 1990’s Japanese cinema look aside), with great costumes and decidedly non-urban Japanese landscapes. The movie also includes one of the best opening credits sequences in a yakuza film, and really sets the tone for what’s to come.  In fact, I can't imagine a person seeing the opening sequence and NOT wanting to immediately go out and see this movie:

Although at its core, this is clearly a “lovers on the run” flick, Samehada clearly isn’t running scared. He’s running because it’s fun. Asano Tadanobu seems to be having so much fun in fact, he doesn’t seem to be
acting so much as just playing along with what, all in all, seems to be an excuse to dress up in designer clothes, run around playing with guns, and have Tarantino-esque conversations about nothing. It’s all mindless fun, but it looks good, sounds good, and keeps things entertaining the entire trip. IMDB gives it 7/10, audience scores on Rotten Tomato give it 81%, and critics give it 25%, so this is one of those cases where the critics are just plain wrong. SSM&PHG is probably one of my favorite black comedy/action yakuza films, and with a great rock and roll soundtrack, greatly stylized costumes, and ridiculous, cartoonish violence, I highly recommend it.