Gonin (1995) Movie Review

A movie like Gonin astounds and fascinates me. Writer/director Takashi Ishii is obviously a very talented man. There are visuals and camera framing in Gonin that just takes my breath away. The man has a great eye for detail and knows how to set up his cameras to convey the point that he wants conveyed. Now, if only Ishii had stuck to cinematography and left the writing to other people, Gonin (re-titled The Five in 1998) might have been another movie entirely — a better movie.

Gonin begins with ex-celebrity Bandai (Koichi Sato) in debt to the local Yakuza. Bandai runs a nightclub and is trading on his former life as a celebrity to bring in the customers, but he’s so in debt to the Yakuza, the Japanese organized crime (re: mafia), that he’s considering some pretty desperate things such as robbing the same Yakuza he owes money to. When he decides to finally take the leap, Bandai goes on a recruiting spree, and gets an ex-cop name Hizu, a gay hustler name Mitsuya (Masahiro Motoki), a recently fired salaryman, and a slightly retarded young hood name Jimmy on his team. It’s a loose and dangerous crew and certainly not the greatest team in the world, but the five does manage to pull the robbery off with very little trouble. Then that’s when things start to go wrong.

The premise of Gonin is nothing new. The recent Ocean’s 11 and a number of other heist films have the same premise, and consist of the same “recruitment drive” by the lead. It’s all been done before, but this is the first Japanese version I’ve seen where the actual robbery is just an excuse for other themes, and in fact this “heist film” is not a heist film at all.

As lensed by director Takashi Ishii, the majority of Gonin’s scenes take place in the dark, at night, or within the shadows of rooms. And as a result, the film is mostly dark and details are hard to come by. Which might be a good thing, since there’s a lot of blood and the movie is rife with sexual innuendos of the male variety.

Which leads me to my biggest problem with Gonin. All events, character motivations, and plot points within Gonin leads to one unambiguous homosexual encounter after another. That is not to say movies with a homoerotic theme is bad, but when the bulk of your movie’s “action” stems from an obsessive need to showcase brutality in all its form, the film begins to look like an exercise in sadomasochism. In fact, I can find very little violence in the movie that didn’t have an S&M slant to them. People are beaten up, punched, slapped, kicked, knifed, and smashed in the head with baseball bats for very little reason except to show it. People’s heads get slammed into concrete; baseball bats collapse in whole heads; bathroom wall tiles are splattered with fresh and dried blood; and that’s barely scratching the surface. Indeed, one gets the sense that director Ishii gets off on all the brutality taking place onscreen, since I’m hard pressed to find any reasons for them being there in the first place.

Should I even go into detail about all the phallic symbols? The wielding of the baseball bats? The sudden appearance of switchblades? Or how about the gratuitous slaughter of female characters? One female character gets raped to death and others, as previously mentioned, gets baseball bats in the head. Besides the lack of female characters in the movie, the ones that do show up all meets grisly ends. Is Ishii trying to tell us something about the female species?

On a purely fictional standpoint, Gonin is perhaps the most absurd movie I’ve seen in a long time. The characters have no common sense and do, say, and act in ways that just doesn’t jive with the real world. Not one single character in this film acts the way normal people acts, or reacts, to situations that they find themselves in (gay or straight or otherwise).

Forget for one moment that every male character will beat the crap out of each other at one point or another with little to no provocation except to satisfy the director’s sadomasochistic urges. If the gratuitous display of latent male homosexual interaction portrayed as physical aggression makes little sense to you, then the motivations of the characters will be even more perplexing. Did I also mention that except for the slightly retarded Jimmy, there is not one likeable character in the whole movie? Combine unsympathetic characters with a permeating cloud of nihilism and gloom and doom and the film becomes unwatchable because it is no longer entertaining.

Gonin is perplexing to me because it shows that the director is obviously a very talented man. One wonders why he doesn’t just leave mainstream film and go directly into the gay porn market where he can further explore his interests in the fine art of sadomasochism.

Takashi Ishii (director) / Takashi Ishii (screenplay)
CAST: Kazuya Kimura
Takeshi Kitano …. Kyoya
Masahiro Motoki …. Mitsuya
Toshiyuki Nagashima …. Ogoshi
Jinpachi Nezu …. Hizu

Buy Gonin on DVD