When I heard work had started on live-action film version of Osamu Tezuka’s MW — easily the bleakest, most nihilistic work ever produced by a man not conventionally known for his dark side — I was skeptical. How were they going to do justice to a story that features an antihero so repellent that discovering he engages in bestiality is one of the lesser shocks we get pummeled with?
They haven’t. The movie is a stripped-down rounding of the bases in Tezuka’s graphic novel, where a lot of details have been condensed or omitted entirely in favor of doing justice to the angry core of the story. This has not been a catastrophic decision, because the movie they made from those details isn’t a bad one. It looks great, it’s entertaining to watch, and it contains just enough of the troubling elements of the original to be worth it. It’s just that, as with all such adaptations, it’s impossible to not compare it detail-for-detail with the original.
The original story was a relationship of the damned between two men: Garai (Takayuki Yamada, of Train Man), a Catholic priest, and Yuki (Hiroshi Tamaki, Sabu), a bank manager behind whose veneer of cultivated respectability is a predator and amoral monster. Yuki’s monstrousness is set up across the entire opening stretch of the film, a tense and excellently-assembled chase-and-showdown in the streets of Bangkok. He accepts a ransom for the daughter of a wealthy businessman, only to reveal he’s hooked her on dope and brainwashed her into staying with him. He kills people the way a horse lazily swats away flies with its tail, and smiles with only his mouth.
Garai should have turned him in long ago, were it not for two things. One, he has been used as a pawn and a decoy in many of Yuki’s schemes, and is reluctant to dash the hopes of others who look up to him. Two, they have a common past: they survived an American chemical-weapons accident on an island some years ago (the subsequent cover-up played out like the My Lai massacre, to boot), and Garai watched Yuki go from an innocent young man to a deranged monster no thanks to the side effects of the experimental “MW” neurotoxin. In Garai’s mind, Yuki is only this way because he didn’t save him fast enough from the disaster, and Yuki is only too happy to exploit Garai’s self-imposed guilt to his own ends.
Eventually a larger design behind Yuki’s actions becomes clear: he plans to find the remaining MW, dig it up, and instigate a massacre that will dwarf Aum Shinrikyo’s subway attacks. The usual side gallery of cops (Ryo Ishibashi, always good) and journalists (Yuriko Ishida) also close in, but in the end Garai is the only one with any real power to stop him from executing his revenge plan. It doesn’t take more than one viewing to see how Garai’s need to confront both himself and Yuki works as an allegory for Japan’s (and, by the same token, the United States’) own unwillingness to confront ugly chapters in its past.
I wonder if the fact this movie got made — and as a big-budget entertainment to boot — is a sign that Japanese filmmaking is once again becoming a place where risk-taking in the public eye isn’t instantly shunned. I could see something like this taking shape under the auspices of the Art Theatre Guild in the Seventies, albeit on a much smaller budget. Then again, maybe the biggest selling point for the film was Tezuka’s name more than anything else — which is hardly the worst thing.
My biggest initial complaint with the film, apart from the abbreviation of the story (although I doubt they would have been able to sneak Yuki’s relationship with his dog into a mainstream film), was a key casting choice. In the manga, Garai looks like a second cousin to Duke Togo from Golgo 13; Yamada is entirely too handsome and boyish. Then I actually watched the film, and while Yamada doesn’t quite look the part he radiates more than enough brooding guilt to populate the role. And while they did have to condense and collapse a great deal to get Tezuka’s 600 pages of manga into two-something hours of screen time, they preserved just enough of the angry primal scream of the original to make it worthwhile. I still recommend the book first, of course.