Two years before the clinical horror EM EMBALMING and a year before the epic EUKEKA (not to be confused with Nicholas Roeg’s final masterpiece) that would bring his work to a wider international audience, director Shinji Aoyama applied his talents to the gangster comedy WILD LIFE. Uneasily perched between different styles, moods and tones, this 1997 feature benefits some excellent free-form camerawork and an inspired use of settings but suffers an overly casual approach that discourages our involvement.
Bogged down by routine, Hiroki Sakai (Kosuke Toyohara) works for a company that installs fruit machines. An ex boxer, his old skills come in handy when old friend Mizuguchi gets him in trouble with yakuza factions. Disabled due to a vicious attack on him eight years earlier, Mizuguchi has stolen incriminating evidence to blackmail some crime bosses. Harassed by the thugs that are convinced he has the package, Sakai has to contend with the kidnapping of boss Tsumara and his feelings for the old man’s daughter, Rie (Yuna Natsuo) as he desperately tries to restore order to his now topsy-turvy world.
Despite some sweeping camerawork and elliptical editing, WILD LIFE isn’t a particularly lively film. With subdued performances, a dullish sheen and some stilted action, Aoyama’s eventful plot requires our attention but does surprisingly little to pique it. As Sakai, Kosuke Toyohara acts well within himself. A bland character unable to function without habit, he undergoes some very unlikely transformations in line with the film’s strange crossover approach. Although his boxing skills threaten to make the film interesting, the fight scenes are put across in a listless manner, some of which are even offscreen, few of which carry any impact. Incredibly wet as Sakai, Toyohara makes one wonder why the attractive Rie carries such a torch for him and he isn’t the wisest choice to anchor us into the fiction.
Referencing Hollywood classics like ON THE WATERFRONT – with the ex boxer as a main character – and most notably KISS ME DEADLY – with the box and its mysterious contents – WILD LIFE fails to live up. Too light to be a thriller, too casual to be a mystery, and too loose for its humour to work, the film is a messy little soup. The film is divided into ‘chapters’, with title cards to delineate each section. As a mark of this unappealingly lackadaisical approach, one part is named ‘So What’: viewers who have taken the time to watch the film may feel the same. Aoyama’s distant camerawork, however, is a strong component of what is termed his ‘art house’ style, and the mobile use of the widescreen images – including a composition of beautiful depth, colour and symmetry in an empty arcade – recall some of the films of the French New Wave during the early ‘60s and their break on the shackles of accepted style.
Slow and contemplative, WILD LIFE is filled with scenes of quiet inactivity. Lacking the sullen poetry of, say, the works of Rokuro Mochizuki (ANOTHER LONELY HITMAN, ONIBI) – also released by Artsmagic – it also lacks the ability to compel our interest. The least pleasing part of the film would have to be its elevation of Sakai to the level of narcissistic hero. Able to suddenly beat up groups of villains and even kill a man with a can of pop, he’s the character admired by all others, including even the policeman who admits to loving him and a yakuza opponent who admires his balls. It defies credibility that the trainee vet hopelessly in love with Rie (who loves Sakai…) not only saves the ex boxer, but gives him a big smile of approval near the end. While the film poses an uplifting quality of sorts in its transition of depressed executive to man of adventure, it veers uncomfortably close to saying “What a guy.”
Directed by Shinji Aoyama
Japanese with English subtitles/ 1997/ 103 minutes/ Colour
SPECIAL DVD FEATURES
Anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1/ NTSC region 1/ Dolby Digital 5.1