Choice of Hercules (2002) Movie Review

Masato Harada’s new movie “Choice of Hercules” would probably make more sense re-titled as “The Labors of Hercules”. Like the Greek myth before him, Atsuyuki Sassa (Koji Yakusho), a knowledgeable official with a Japanese National Agency (a sort of domestic defense bureau), is given a set of seemingly impossible labors to perform. For Sassa, who has to save a woman held hostage by a violent and well-armed group of student radicals called the Red Army, Hercules had it easy.

“Choice of Hercules” is set in 1972 in the snow-covered Nagano countryside, where a small band of Red Army radicals have essentially become terrorists and taken up defensive positions in a lodge. Sent to take over command of the situation, Sassa finds himself at odds with the indignant local Nagano police force and the anxious Tokyo Metropolitan Police sent in to “help” things. To top it off, Sassa is required to give 6 daily briefings to the bureaucrats back in Tokyo via phone. And did I mention that Sassa isn’t allowed to use guns without permission, can’t kill any of the terrorists, can’t let the hostage die, can’t get any of the cops killed, and has to put up with the second-guessing and often irritating media?

Written and directed by Masato Harada (“Leaving”) from a nonfiction book by Atsuyuki Sassa himself, the movie purports to be a “fictional story about a true event”, although since the movie credits Sassa’s book as the main source, I’m not sure if this bit of legal CYA actually makes sense. The movie is less concern with the events leading up to the 1972 siege of the Nagano lodge than it is about dissecting the insanity of a complicated bureaucracy incapable of realizing its own ponderous nature. Our heroes are Sassa and the various factions of law-enforcement gathered in the freezing temperatures of Nagano to deal with the situation (in the end, over 1,400 cops were involved). In fact, we don’t even spend a single second with the terrorists, or even learn what it is they are rebelling against.

There’s always more to a Masato Harada movie than pure entertainment. Which isn’t to say “Hercules” isn’t entertaining in its deliberate and detailed re-enactment of the foolishness that eventually leads to a final bloody charge on the terrorist-controlled lodge. With one hurdle after another thrown at him, we can see the calm Sassa slowly but surely approaching his breaking point. This is a man who knows what needs to be done, but is restrained by those around him simply because they know of no other way to respond. Speaking more to the complex and constraining nature of Japanese notions of honor and tradition, the events in “Hercules” doesn’t give one great confidence in the Japanese as an efficient law-enforcement organization.

As one character notes, it’s not the Red Army that Sassa has to worry about, but everyone else. No line of dialogue sums up “Hercules” so well. Sassa is burdened by the bureaucracy of his own National agency that requires him to ask permission to do everything, an antagonistic police force that claims to know more than it can possibly conceive of, and a group of Tokyo cops way too anxious to prove their worth. As a result, when the siege finally comes to fruition, things fall apart quickly until “Hercules” starts to resemble the bloody confusion of “Blackhawk Down”, only with less firepower.

As our burdened hero, familiar Masato Harada muse Koji Yakusho (“Kamikaze Taxi”) expresses all the right emotions at all the right times. His frustration at the unnecessary nature of the chain of command and his doubts about his own plans come through loud and clear. Even as everyone in the movie swirls around in a sea of uniforms and shouting matches, Sassa remains our center of calm. Which isn’t to say the film portrays Sassa as a brilliant man, because he’s not. But in a room full of people tripping over themselves to save face, Sassa seems to be the only one who actually wants to end the hostage situation and save the hostage beyond all else.

“Choice of Hercules” is probably director Masato Harada’s most “cinematic” film yet. The cinematography by Yoshitaka Sakamoto, another long-time collaborator of Harada’s, provides a nice stark contrast between the brilliant whiteness of the snow-covered exterior scenes and the smoky, contested feel of the interior scenes. The attack on the lodge, which takes up nearly all of the film’s second half, becomes a sea of pushing bodies, pouring water, lingering smoke, and mass chaos. It’s completely out of control, and yet everything is kept in perfect order by Masato’s pacing and camerawork.

If you’ve never seen a bureaucracy try to swallow itself whole, then you haven’t watched “Choice of Hercules”.

Masato Harada (director) / Masato Harada (screenplay), Atsuyuki Sassa (book)
CAST: Koji Yakusho …. Atsuyuki Sassa
Ryudo Uzaki …. Shinichi Udagawa
Yuki Amami …. Sachiko Sassa
Masato Ibu …. Chief Constable Noma
Makoto Fujita …. General Gotoda