films are old hat, and I am dangerously close to becoming overdosed on them.
Writer/director Katsuhito Ishii’s strangely titled Shark Skin Man and Peach
Hip Girl (or SSMAPHG) is much closer to Ryuhei Kitamura’s Versus
than it is to any of Takeshi Kitano’s films. The comparison is similar to
putting side-to-side Quentin Tarantino’s “crime” films and “gang”
films like The Godfather. Actually, comparing Ishii’s film to
Tarantino’s is apropos, since SSMAPHG has more in common with Pulp
Fiction than it does any Japanese gang films I’ve seen, including all of
Kitano’s Yakuza pictures.
SSMAPHG opens with smooth criminal Samehada
(Tadanobu Asano) fleeing his fellow Yakuza gangsters, including his ex-partner
in crime Sawada (Susumu Tarajima) and a professional killer name Tanuki.
Samehada, who has stolen 100 million yen from his ex gang, runs across Toshiko
(Sie Kohinata), a desperate and abused young woman working at a hotel in the
country with her “uncle.” By crossing path with the independent Samehada,
Toshiko finds her one chance to escape her uncle’s clutches for good and takes
it. The stage is set for Tanuki, Sawada, and a small army of Yakuza gangsters,
including a flashy killer in a white suit who also happens to be the son of the
gang’s boss, to be on the rampage through the Japanese countryside. If that
wasn’t enough chaos in the countryside, Toshiko’s uncle hires a gay,
Urkel-type hitman to bring his “niece” back, as well as kill Samehada for
SSMAPHG is supposed to be based on a Japanese comic
book, but I wouldn’t have known this by watching the film. There are no
“comic book-y” moments and in fact much of SSMAPHG is quite
down-to-Earth. The film also has a low-budget feel to it, although the word
“independent” might be more appropriate, since the word “low-budget”
tends to bring up connotations of something being sub par.
The gangsters’ pursuit of Samehada begins in the country
and never leaves. That doesn’t mean the lack of locations hampers the film.
With everyone moving in essentially the same confined areas, the film generates
a lot of tension. It also helps that director Ishii and cinematographer Haroshi
Machida uses some very creative camera angles and backdrops for their chases and
shootouts. Since the movie lacks a lot of flash (re: expensive shots), it relies
on a lot of creativity with the camera and choices of available locales to give
it a leg up. The gunfights at the end, starting inside a hotel before moving out
into the woods at night, are quite well done and exciting, and a little bit
Ishii looks to be heavily influenced by Tarantino’s work,
particularly in the dialogue. Subjects like action figures, movie titles, and
roadside advertisement signs come up at odd intervals and are surprisingly very
funny, even if they are too short and there’s not nearly enough of them.
Because of the film’s excellent English subtitles, I understood a lot of the
jokes and wished Ishii had spent more time, or at least padded out the film’s
running length, with more humorous dialogue.
The film has a lot of individual characters, each with
their own distinctive look and personality. And even though we don’t always
know who is who (name-wise, anyway), we’re always able to keep them apart from
the pack with a simple glance. Besides the gang boss’s son who bullies
everyone around him because he can, there are 3 low-level shooters waiting for
their chance at the brass ring.
Tanuki (Ittoku Kishibe) is subtly menacing and
dangerous as the knife-throwing leader of the hitmen. The other character that
comes through is Yamada, the Japanese Urkel (in looks and personality) who
develops a crush on Samehada while trying to kill him. Of course the problem
with a movie with such a large cast is that it’s impossible to give them their
fair amount of screen time. Besides a couple of good, throwaway dialogue scenes,
Ishii doesn’t bother to shed light on the Yakuza footsoldiers beside their
immediate outward “look.”
SSMAPHG moves well, is always quirky, sometimes
dark, and sometimes funny. It also looks like the kind of film that might have
happened only if David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino had collaborated, because
there’s plenty of Lynch’s weirdness to be found. It’s an action film
because there are a couple of bloody shootout scenes, but it’s also very heavy
on the comedy. The film manages to mix the two elements very well, even though I
was somewhat surprised there wasn’t nearly as much action as I had expected.
Ishii also makes the film move through time, employing a
non-linear narrative that at first seems disjointed, but does make sense by the
end of the film. If not sense, then at least it didn’t confuse. The editing is
also notable, with Ishii using time-lapsed cutting, where characters appear out
of thin air or moves around all in the same frame without the camera ever having
SSMAPHG marks the directorial debut of Katsuhito
Ishii, and it will be quite worthwhile to see what he does in the future,
judging by what he’s accomplished here.