Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but in the movies they just call it homage. The Most Terrible Time In My Life might seem like parody at first, but it’s actually a sincere love letter to Hollywood’s hard-boiled detective movies. It mixes black comedy, straight drama and hard-boiled noir very effectively—it’s genuinely enjoyable, and not just some self-indulgent filmmaking exercise. Movies like this are hard enough to get right for real, so to turn them into a kind of in-joke is only all the more self-defeating; I love it when a director is able to be sincere with his source material and not simply hijack it.
I suspect some people are simply going to consider Life a sophisticated act of cinematic plagiarism. Consider the main character’s name: Maiku Hama. Yes, that’s a Nipponification of “Mike Hammer,” much in the same way popular Japanese horror writer Edogawa Rampo took his name from a similar rendition of Edgar Allan Poe.
Hama (Masatoshi Nagase) is a Yokohama private eye who has his offices right next to the projection booth of a movie theater; if you want to see the man, you’ve got to buy a movie ticket—usually for some revival item like Chained Heat or The Best Years of Our Lives. (The movie marquee works like a kind of hilariously sarcastic Greek chorus: every time he walks out of the theater, it's showing something new that comments on the action.)
Most of Hama’s clients are non-Japanese—Chinese or Koreans who’ve come looking for missing friends or relatives when the police won’t help them. Hama isn’t a crusader, he just figures he can make a buck at it when others don’t want to bother. He dresses in loud shirts and wears black glasses, and drives around in a massive, flashy American car (although it breaks down in the very first scene, which is a hint of how his luck tends to run). He’s also well-connected, with cabdrivers and folks in Immigration ready to help when a particularly thorny case comes up. And he has a soft spot for people on trouble, even if he doesn’t admit it.
Like many movie detectives, Hama has the worst imaginable luck. While playing in a mah-jongg den, he gets into a bust-up with a yakuza which ends with his pinky being sliced off. In a wicked homage to Yojinbo, the finger winds up in the mouth of a dog, and when his friends finally get it back they crow: “It’s only a little chewed up!” After getting it sewed back on, he runs into the Chinese waiter who indirectly caused the ruckus. He is grateful, and wants to apologize—by hiring Hama to find his missing brother.
Hama figures, what the hell, work is work, and sets to digging. It turns out the brother emigrated from Taiwan into Japan years ago and never left. In fact, he’s still in Yokohama—as part of a newly-formed criminal gang that consists entirely of foreigners. They call themselves “The New Japs” (in English, no less), and when Hama runs afoul of them they make life miserable for both him and his kid sister. Worse, his new friend the Chinese waiter may be mixed up with them as well, far deeper than Hama realizes.
I always wondered if they called it pulp fiction because of what happens to the hero. Hama takes an astounding amount of abuse in Life: his pinky is hacked off, but he’s also shot in the leg, beaten up, strangled, clubbed over the head, and subjected to an amazing amount of harassment at the hands of the cops, the yakuza, and just about everyone else that he bumps into. What makes him a hero instead of an object of pity is that like many other pulp detectives, he has a code and sticks to it, and one tenet of that code is to get up and keep going, no matter what. At one point Jo Shishido (yes, that Jo Shishido) shows up as his mentor, and he, too, clobbers on Hama as a way of getting a point across.
The cast is terrific. Nagase has been in tons of movies—everything from Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful Mystery Train to Sogo Ishii’s Gojoe, and plenty of other things in between. His Maiku Hama character is not terribly tough physically (although there is one hilarious scene where he pretends to be a Bible student to get the jump on a whole cadre of bad guys), but he never lets anything get him all the way down. Another perpetual Japanese cult actor and director, Shinya Tsukamoto (he of Tetsuo: the Iron Man), also turns up in a pivotal role.
Many recent Japanese crime movies have dealt with the way crime in Japan is becoming the province of non-Japanese—Chinese, Brazilians and Koreans, mainly—much in the same way American gangsters found their turf being eaten into by Vietnamese and Russian gangs in the last couple of decades. In Japan, though, national identity is even more of a touchstone: the “New Japs” in Life are looking to Japan to give them the opportunity to not only make money and be powerful, but maybe also recapture some of their lost pride. Takashi Miike has been exploring this theme exhaustively in many of his movies over the past decade, but Life came much earlier (1993) and is a lot more accessible (and genuinely fun) than many of Miike’s stomach-dislodging epics of violence and weirdness.
Life was directed by Kaizo Hayashi, the director responsible for the amazing Zipang—an outlandish samurai fantasy that was both parody and homage to the genre’s grandest excesses. Life is as tight and lean as the best movies that inspired it, so in the end it comes off more as a legitimate pulp noir than it does a simple homage. The whole thing’s shot in crisp black-and-white CinemaScope (well, except for the burst of Seijun Suzuki-esque color at the end), with great-looking cars and women, smoke-filled bars and hideouts, glaring overhead lights, and the mesmerizing flicker of the projector in the room next to Hama’s office. It’s that kind of movie.
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