Japanese Yakuza 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 good measure…
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 funny,
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 moved once.
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.
Katsuhito Ishii (director) / Katsuhito Ishii (screenplay), Minetaro Mochizuki (comics)
CAST: Tadanobu Asano …. Shark Skin
Ittoku Kishibe …. Tanuki
Sie Kohinata …. Peach Hip
Kimie Shingyoji …. Mitsuko
Susumu Terajima …. Sawada