Shohei Manabe’s manga “Smuggler” makes it to the big screen courtesy of director Katsuhito Ishii, previously known for varied and off beat fare such as “A Taste of Tea”, the bizarre “Funky Forest: the First Contact” and the frankly crazed “Party 7”. With Ishii at the helm, the film is an unsurprisingly wild take on the Japanese yakuza genre, Satoshi Tsumabuki (“Waterboys”) starring as an unfortunate young man pulled into an oddball and extremely violent criminal underworld of crooks, corpse disposal and murderous assassins.
The film starts off with Tsumabuki as Kinuta, a slacker who gave up on a not particularly promising acting career, forced to work as a smuggler in order to pay back his debt to a group of local heavies. Serving under veteran Joe (Nagase Masatoshi, “Sakuran”), his life gets complicated when the latest package on the back of their beat up truck turns out to be the headless body of yakuza boss called Tanuma, recently murdered by Chinese assassins Vertebrae (Masanobu Ando, “The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman”) and Viscera (Ryushin Tei, “Tokyo Island”). After Vertebrae is eventually captured by the gothic Lolita dressing Banker (Matsuyuki Yasuko, “Detroit Metal City”), he is given to the smugglers to deliver alive to the vengeance seeking gang, now locked in a power struggle between Tanuma’s widow (Mitsushima Hikari, “Love Exposure”) and the crazed Seiji (Takashima Masahiro, “Hayabusa”). The killer escapes, landing Kinuta in deep water, and the young man is forced to impersonate him in a desperate bid to fool the raging yakuza.
Though manga adaptations are common enough, very few films truly manage to capture the look and feel of their comic origins and successfully combine it with big screen cinematics. “Smuggler” does very well indeed in this respect Ishii proving a great choice as director, his own idiosyncratic, off the wall style bringing the film very close to live action cartoon while at the same time retaining a tough, gritty edge. There are definite shades of his cult favourite 1998 debut “Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl”, with lots of bright colours and wackiness, Ishii employing a wide range of different visual tricks and techniques, including plenty of both hyperactivity and slow motion.
Eccentric and showing an outlandish sense of humour, it’s for the most part a lot of fun, thanks in no small part to an interesting and entertaining set of characters, who are generally likeable despite being uniformly strange and quirky. Satoshi Tsumabuki does well as the everyman loser lead, and though his last act transformation and some of his behaviour is very leftfield, this is in-keeping with the film’s tone, and he makes for a solid and atypical protagonist. The rest of the cast all seem to be having a great time, Masanobu Ando and Takashima Masahiro standing out in particularly memorable roles, and the always awesome Mitsushima Hikari continuing to cement her position as one of Japan’s most talented young actresses. As a result, for all its psychotic whimsy, the film has a surprisingly genuine and big heart, coupled with an upbeat message that hits home most unexpectedly, again setting it apart from other similarly plotted genre flicks.
At the same time, it has to be noted that “Smuggler” really is an exceptionally violent film, with an incredible amount of skull cracking, mutilation and murder, most of it depicted in graphic, loving detail, Ishii frequently using slow motion to focus in on the gruesome gore. The last third takes a sudden diversion into sadism, with a few stomach troubling scenes of torture porn that venture into “Ichi the Killer” territory, and the film does at times come across like the somewhat more friendly and cheerful version of Takashi Miike’s notorious kinky shocker.
Of course, for many viewers this will make the film a must-see, and “Smuggler” is certainly one for the cult film crowd or anyone looking for stylish and vicious thrills. One of the better and most visually faithful manga adaptations of late, it’s also one of the most unique and enjoyable Japanese crime outings, and another wonderfully outrageous effort from Katsuhito Ishii.
Katsuhito Ishii (director) / Shôhei Manabe (comic “Sumagurâ”), Katsuhito Ishii, Masatoshi Yamaguchi, Kensuke Yamamoto (screenplay)
CAST: Satoshi Tsumabuki … Kinuta Ryôsuke
Masatoshi Nagase … Joe
Yasuko Matsuyuki … Yuki Yamaoka
Hikari Mitsushima … Tanuma Chiharu
Tsuyoshi Abe … Bukutadashi Kabashi
Masanobu Andô … Spine
Tatsuya Gashûin … Jijii