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Miike Takashi returns with “Shield of Straw”, a revenge thriller with a twist, in which a fiercely moralistic cop is charged with protecting a child killer with a massive bounty on his head. Adapted from the novel by Kiuchi Kazuhiro, the film is one of the auteur and cult favourite’s more commercial offerings of late, seeing him working with a bigger budget and serving up some large scale action sequences. Of course, there’s something a little different and interesting about pretty much everything Miike turns his hand to, and the film, which screened in competition at Cannes, combines its shoot-outs and set pieces with challenging moral questions and a sharp take on modern Japanese society.
The film opens with the body of a 7-year-old girl being found dumped in a sewage pipe and the offering of a huge one billion yen reward by her corporate mogul grandfather in return for the execution of the prime suspect, convicted murderer and paedophile Kiyomaru (Fujiwara Tatsuya, “Battle Royale”). The offer sends shockwaves through Japan, with anyone and everyone on the hunt for Kiyomaru, including his supposed best friend, who receives a cash prize for trying to kill him. Terrified for his life, the monster turns himself in at a police station begging for protection, and a team of police detectives, led by Mekari (Osawa Takao, “Goemon”) and Shiraiwa (Matsushima Nanako, “Ring”), are charged with transporting him from Fukuoka to Tokyo and protecting him from the blood-hungry general populace. Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that there’s a mole in their ranks, and with other officers stepping up to try and take a shot at Kiyomaru, Mekari and Shiraiwa are forced to take desperate measures, while trying to resist temptation themselves.
You only need to look at the sheer variety of his last few outings to see just how hard it is to pin down or pigeonhole Miike Takashi – videogame adaption “Ace Attorney”, hyper stylised teen musical “For Love’s Sake”, over the top killer teacher shocker “Lesson of the Evil”, and now “Shield of Straw”, which is arguably the most straightforward and commercially minded of the bunch. Though some fans might still pine for the wildness and perverse creativity of his earlier works, there’s no denying that Miike has successfully made the transition to respectable helmer, and “Shield” is certainly the very model of a slick, big budget action thriller. On these terms, it’s an above average genre opening, making entertaining use of its premise and milking it for some effective tension and an escalating sense of danger.
While at two hours it’s a touch on the long side, the pace dropping off somewhat during the middle section, there’s plenty of action, Miike directing with assurance and the odd touch of flair, and there’s just about enough blood and violence to give things a valuable hard edge. The budget is clearly up there on screen, the film benefitting from some impressive production values, and the large scale set pieces are good value for money, most notably a sequence shot on Taiwan’s high speed trains. There’s nothing particularly new or surprising about any of this, but it’s perfectly well-handled, and the film ticks all the right genre boxes.
What it might lack in originality, the film makes up for with its morality, posing a series of interesting questions as protagonist Mekari is put through his paces. With the film never letting the viewer forget that Kiyomaru is a loathsome (though recognisably human) wretch, the issue of whether it is right to have him killed by the public is a fascinating one – especially since it’s clear that for different characters the motivation for murder is very different, ranging greed to personal grudges. In the case of Mekari, who comes complete with his own tragic backstory, this is the source of increasingly complex torment, especially with the bodies of his colleagues starting to pile up. The film builds to a conclusion which, if not entirely unexpected, will at least stay with the viewer for a while, and though Miike has been responsible for more substantial and philosophical works in the past, it’s nice to see an action thriller that has some level of intellectual ambition.
There’s more than enough here to make “Shield of Straw” an accomplished and above average blockbuster thriller, and anyone not hoping for old-fashioned Miike Takashi craziness should have a pretty good time. Though not his most creative or distinctive work, he’s a director always worth watching, and the film’s moral ponderings go some way to helping it stand out from the crowd.
Takashi Miike (director) / Kazuhiro Kiuchi (novel), Tamio Hayashi (screenplay)
CAST: Nanako Matsushima … Atsuko Shiraiwa
Tatsuya Fujiwara … Kunihide Kiyomaru
Takao Ohsawa … Kazuki Mekari
Gorô Kishitani … Takeshi okumura
Masatô Ibu … Kenji sekiya
Kento Nagayama … Masaki kamihashi