Fans of the blues know that most of the best blues songs are about broken hearts and violent revenge, two themes Takashi Miike seems happy to explore endlessly in his movies about Tokyo's criminal underground. Blues Harp is one of the very best of his urban-gangster movies, not only because it's got plenty of Miike's usual grit and crazy style, but also because it has an unexpectedly touching story. Miike can be gentle and poetic when he chooses to be (Sabu was a wonderful example of that), and it's films like this that I've come to savor most from him, not his splatterfests (Ichi the Killer) or his style-chewing showcases for lurid violence (the first Dead or Alive).
Almost all of Miike's protagonists are either criminals, quasi-outcasts in Japanese society (Koreans, Chinese, Russians, Brazilians, half-bloods), or both. Chuji (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, of Charisma and Space Travelers) is both: his father was black, his mother was a prostitute, and after growing up he drifted into Tokyo's criminal underworld, tending bar in a rock club and selling speed on the side to make ends meet. He has no fondness for the life he's leading — early in the film he administers a rather perfunctory beating to a smart-mouth American — and his real love is music, as expressed through his harmonica. One night there's a chase and a shootout in the alley behind the club, and almost without trying Chuji saves the life of up-and-coming gangster Kenji (Daisuke Iijima, Gohatto).
The dapper, well-dressed and lavishly-tattooed Kenji and the shy, reserved, T-shirt wearing Chuji couldn't be more unalike. Not only is Chuji looking to leave behind the criminal life, he's currently doing his drug deals for the very gang that came looking for Kenji. But they like each other, on some fundamental level that goes beyond clan loyalties or even personal agendas, and Chuji even brings Kenji to his girlfriend's place t o get sewn up after he's been stabbed in the arm. Miike hints that Kenji may not only be gay but attracted to Chuji — as unrequited a bit of love as you're likely to get in a Miike movie, especially since straight-arrow hetero Chuji plans on marrying and settling down with his girl. He's also been offered the chance to step into the limelight for a band, and maybe even land a recording contract.
This dichotomy between what Kenji wants and what he can have begins to force his hand, and before long he's hatching a plan with his would-be rivals, a plan that a lesser movie would mistake for the real plot. He and the subordinate of the other gang agree to bump off each other's bosses, then forge key documents that name each of them as successors. The two clans can then pool their resources instead of continuing a wasteful internecine war. Sounds great, except that in order to pull it off, Kenji has to seduce the boss's mistress (which he does with what we presume to be great distate), and Chuji is dragged into it kicking and screaming by the other side. Only too late does Kenji realize the gravity of his mistakes.
Harp centers around its characters and its performances. Ikeuchi I have seen before and always enjoyed, and here he connects with the audience by simply embodying a quiet and gifted young man. Ijima is even better, focusing his frustration and rage into narrow little channels (as when he brushes his teeth so violently that his gums bleed). Miike also likes to simply show his characters at work without explaining too much of what's going on, and while sometimes this is terribly confusing (Agitator and some of the Black Society movies come to mind), Harp always feels like there's a firm hand on the wheel.
Many people have accused Miike (and Takeshi Kitano before him) of glamorizing gangster life. Given that most of Miike's (and Kitano's) gangster characters end up dead, and long before that are visibly exhausted by the life they lead, it's hard to call Miike's keen attention the same as glamorization. He does feel sympathy, however, which is what makes Harp and so many of Miike's other gangster films more than just exercises in plot or style. For all of their machismo and flash, their lives are just as strictured, harried, and dead-end as the workaday salarymen whose toes they step on. (Small wonder, then, that Miike went on to direct the live-action adaptation of the amusing if sentimental manga Salaryman Kintaro, about a gangster who makes good by becoming an office worker after his wife's death.)
Miike surrounds himself with like-minded folks and works with them exhaustively, a tactic many of the best directors have used. Co-screeenwriter Toshiyuki Morioka also penned Miike's Fudoh, as well as the excellent Chinpira and the Kitano-esque Onibi; cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto has worked with Miike on more of his movies than I can count. After the insane excesses of Ichi, the Moebius mind-warp of Izo and the post-logic, post-Lynchian nightmare of Gozu, it's nice to bump into one of M iike's more accessible movies and also have it be one of his best.