When I talk about a movie being “Kitanoesque,” that probably brings to mind a slew of associations familiar to people who’ve seen a number of Takeshi Kitano’s movies: the static takes, the deadpan treatment of the subject matter, the stories that usually involve a life of crime gone sour. Another Lonely Hitman is indeed Kitanoesque, but it’s also unmistakeably its own creature. It ought to be, since it was one of the many films directed by Rokuro Mochizuki—a director with a pedigree at least as long and accomplished as Kitano’s but who has until now remained relatively unknown outside of Japan.
Until recently most Japanese gangster dramas—to say nothing of most movies produced in Japan for a primarily Japanese audience—had only the most cultish recognition outside of their home country. The prevalent belief was that such films weren’t really going to be interesting to other people anyway, and so no concessions were made to make them exportable. Now all of that has changed, and everyone from Mochizuki to the more broadly-recognizable Kinji Fukasaku (also responsible for some of that country’s best gangster cinema) are getting English-language DVD editions of their best films.
The title was actually what drew me in here: Another Lonely Hitman. Meaning interchangeable, or disposable—which is what most footsoldiers in the yakuza underworld wind up being. Tachibana (Ryo Ishibashi, probably most familiar to readers as the hapless widower Aoyama in Audition) is a yakuza hitman who certainly acts the role. In the very first scenes in the film, he mainlines drugs, blows away the boss of a rival clan, and mistakenly cripples a woman who happened to be right next to him. For this he serves ten years in prison, and spends the whole time drying out and preparing himself for getting back into the swing of things.
What he finds when he gets back out is not that he is no longer fit to be yakuza, but that the yakuza he knew is no longer fit for him. The codes of honor and the sense of discipline he had been trying to hone himself to meet have withered away and been replaced with a cynicism, a ruthlessness that even he doesn’t find palatable. The only way to compete with others trying to take over their turf is to be even more ruthless and driven. Honor and glory have taken a backseat to endless moneymaking scams and catering to the local junkie populace—of which he himself was once a member. Now that he is straight, he sees the whole business of drugs as being all the more despicable: even those who don’t use it are corrupted by it, but his former clan is perfectly willing to deal in it if it means more revenue.
As a getting-out reward, Tachibana receives a visit from a junkie prostitute, Yuki (Asami Sawada). Tachibana doesn’t even realize she’s on drugs at first, but when he does, his reaction is fury: he chains her up in his apartment to detox. The very idea of drugs enrages him; the mere notion that this girl who was so nice to him is also an addict puts a sense of angry purpose into him that his regular job does not. In one of the movie’s many touches of oddball black humor, his idea of helping her dry out consists of buying her a picture puzzle to keep her mind busy while she withdraws.
Hitman is Kitanoesque in two ways: it’s about people trying to leave a forbidding lifestyle and succeeding (or failing) in their own ways, but it also has some of Kitano’s trademark wistfulness. Even the opening shoot-out, with brains and blood dumped on a restaurant table, is given a melancholy that carries over into the rest of the film. Scenes are unhurried; they unfold as they must, but I never got the feeling the movie was rudderless.
The most obvious comparison, though, is not with Kitano but with another gangster-focused “niche” director, Takashi Miike, who went from grinding out direct-to-video rental shelf product in Japan to an international film festival sensation in under a decade. Mochizuki is at least as good a director in many ways. At one point in Hitman there is a yakuza-movie set-piece, a scene where an underling has to sever a pinky as an apology for a transgression. Mochizuki never shows the actual cutting, but instead deals with the painful, clumsy aftermath: the bleeding, the bandages, the way this whole thing definitely doesn’t live up to the noble hype Tachibana was expecting. The same could be said of everything that has been offered to him since he got out of prison, and it isn’t long before he plans on just grabbing the money and running.
Mochizuki is an interesting case: he was a dropout who got started in filmmaking through a college for experimental films (the renowned Image Forum), but was nonetheless encouraged by the staff to do more commercial projects. He eventually found work at the skin-market grindhouse studio Nikkatsu, which has served as inadvertent incubator for so many indie-minded Japanese filmmakers. After putting down roots in various soft porn productions (some of it quite subversive and hilarious), he switched gradually to the crime/yakuza genre and has since directed over a dozen movies. Hitman was only his fourth or fifth, and of the rest of them only two are even marginally known to English-speaking audiences: another Kitano/Miike-esque gangster drama Onibi: The Fire Within, and his widely-lauded Chinpira. Hitman ought to serve as a good taster of what else the man has to offer, and I know that I want to see more myself.