Another Lonely Hitman Review

After focusing heavily on the ouvré of Takashi Miike for over a year now, ArtsmagicDVD are proudly heralding the start of their Rokuro Mochizuki Collection with Another Lonely Hitman. Now, I'm sure many western audiences will be scratching their heads wondering just who exactly Mochizuki is, seeing as he's been sorely overlooked by western DVD distributors up until now, but seasoned Japanese cinema enthusiasts rate him highly among the slew of fresh directors that debuted in the early 90's and went on to become some of the biggest names in the industry today. Like many of his contemporaries, Mochizuki's cut his teeth in the erotic Pinku industry of the mid-80's, first as a writer then director and producer of skinflicks right up until 1990, when he made his dramatic debut feature: Skinless Night, a semi-autobiographical tale about a director trying to break free from the porn industry. He followed this up in 1993 with the popular Wicked Reporter, and in 1995 he unleashed his first Yakuza drama upon the world: Another Lonely Hitman. Since then his name has been synonymous with the cream of the 90's Yakuza luminaries, and his seminal classic Onibi (The Fire Within) is held as one of the finest examples of the genre in that decade.


Another Lonely Hitman kicks off with the heroin-fuelled assassination of a rival gang boss that earns hard-boiled Yakuza hitman, Tachibana Takashi (Ryo Ishibashi), a ten year spell in prison. He serves his time, kicks his drug habit, and finally emerges back into the Hirakawa crime family fold expecting to pick up where he left off - but therein lies the problem. An awful lot has changed in the past decade, not only is his family floundering near the bottom of the region's power scale, but the rival family whose boss he killed went on to forge powerful alliances and is now running the area. Things have changed beyond description within this criminal society, the old codes of honour are no longer being obeyed, most senior Yakuza operate like glorified businessmen, and even his own peers are nothing more than neutered diplomats who are terrified of upsetting the status-quo set by their rivals. There's simply no place for a bruiser like Tachibana in the family anymore, but as his disillusionment with the underworld develops he finds one source of comfort in a relationship with a young prostitute named Yuki (Asami Sawaki). Like Tachibana she's suffering from a lack of purpose, but unlike him she likes to find solace from injecting heroin – something which the no-nonsense hitman soon sets about solving. This coincides with increased drug activity in the region, and when dealers start turning up near the important gambling dens, Tachibana is finally called upon to put his skills to good use. However when this job turns out to be yet another poisoned pill, the simmering anger that the loyal Yakuza has managed to suppress can no longer be contained.

That's just about as clichéd a synopsis as you can get within the gangster genre; Another Lonely Hitman is not a film you should be checking out for the gripping storyline that's for sure, but what Rokuro Mochizuki lacks in original plotting he more than makes up for in his extremely un-glamourous approach to the subject and strong emphasis on the characterisation. Mochizuki displays a very subtle eye behind the camera, his style is remarkably understated and there are no flashy movements. Even when the action kicks in he doesn't try anything bolder than the occasional use of Dutch angles. The film's opening is a good example of what you can achieve with slow lingering shots and effective use of close-ups, as we see Tachibana shooting up heroin in a public toilet before coolly walking down into the restaurant area and blowing a Yakuza boss' brains out. The use of colour here is also quite startling, the screen is awash with reds and browns that contrast quite harshly to the drab grey Osakan landscape Tachibana inhabits from that point on. Most of the film is set in this dreary metropolis, emphasisng the inner turmoil and isolation of the central character, there's one particularly haunting shot just before the opening title screen where the newly released Tachibana separates from his Yakuza brothers because he's suffering from severe motion sickness while traveling in the back of the bosses car. As they drive off deep into the distance a P.O.V shot from the back of the vehicle frames Tachibana's approach among the sprawling deserted highways around him. Yet it's not all languid bleakness, every now and then Mochizuki will introduce another sensuously colourful sequence, with deep blues in particular making a big impact as a recurring symbol of the ocean where Tachibana's dreams of starting afresh as a fisherman lie. Mochizuki's neo-noir style is also beautifully accentuated by Kazutoki Umezu's gentle saxophone-led Jazz score, which gently sweeps you up into Another Lonely Hitman's mournful rhythm.


As for the characters, they're all satisfyingly realistic human beings. Tachibana and his young underling Yuji are the only Yakuza who remotely live up to romantic gangster cinematic conventions of tough criminals who operate by a strict code of honour, but of course in this film neither of them are successful hoodlums anymore. Both are portrayed as men who are itching to upset the established codes of conduct and agitate the rather stilted peace that lies over the area so as to at least try and claw back some power and respect for the family, but these attempts amount to very little, and ultimately as Yakuza they're both just as useless and pitiable as their peers, who make up the three most senior members of the Hirakawa gang: Shimoyama, Mizohashi, and boss Hirakawa himself. These men represent two distinct sides of new Yakuza hierarchy; Hirakawa and Shimoyama are nothing but glorified middlemen for the other families these days, with the aged boss in particular being shown as a completely meek and unimposing weakling; a totally castrated individual who seems unsure as to what the role of family boss should involve anymore. In fact, just taking one look at him makes Tachibana's predicament seem somewhat less extreme. Hirakawa's right hand man, Shimoyama is the real face of authority within the gang, but that job doesn’t account to much more than yelling at Tachibana whenever he steps out of line. Their relationship is a rather unfortunate one; it's clear that Shimoyama sympathises with his colleague, and that they used to be close friends before his spell in prison, but now Shimoyama's acceptance of the world around him simply cannot gel with Tachibana's defiance and there's far too much tension between them to truly relate anymore. About the only successful man within the family, and the only one with a large amount of respect on the street anymore is Mizohashi, an utterly repellent, unctuous slimeball who is secretly peddling drugs and making back-hand deals with sleazy rival gang bosses in order to raise funds for an ambitious legitimate business venture. The very fact he's the only one of the group actually making good money speaks volumes about the characteristics these modern Yakuza need in order to succeed, and it certainly speaks volumes for Mochizuki's view of the criminal underworld as well.

The other major subject of Another Lonely Hitman is of course Tachibana's developing romance with a young prostitute named Yuki, but true to the mood of Mochizuki's drama, this is anything but a rosy love story. Their paths first cross when she is hired by the Hirakawa group to satisfy Tachibana's decade-long needs, but it seems this prolonged period of inactivity has left him impotent, so instead of getting down to business the two strike up a tentative relationship. She's everything he isn't, sweet natured, outgoing, and energetic; while he's one of the few men in her life who treats her with some respect, so it's not hard to see what they see in each other. At first their relationship plays out in a rather youthful naïve manner, after their first night together they go on a date to the local theme park where we first see Tachibana actually laughing and having fun on an Octopus spinner ride – another subtle use of Oceanic imagery. Later on when Tachibana discovers she's hooked on heroin and first tries to force her into going cold turkey, they return to this theme park only to find it closed down, it seems the early magic is gone from their relationship and things are about to get serious. Indeed they do, Yuki enters the violent throws of withdrawal and Tachibana stands resolute in purging her of the drugs – whatever the cost. Mochizuki demonstrates an unrelenting directness when dealing with Yuki's drug withdrawal, and he asks a lot from Ryo Ishibashi and Asami Sawada by using long takes in some pretty intense scenes, but both actors rise to the occasion very impressively. You totally feel both the pain and anguish of their characters in these sequences.


The performances all round are rather excellent. Ryo Ishibashi is a very well known face to western audiences from joint U.S productions like American Yakuza, Brother and more recently The Grudge. He's a very intense actor who's best suited to dark, brooding parts like gangsters and police detectives - although Takashi Miike's Audition proved he can play emotionally vulnerable characters as well. In this film he demonstrates both aspects of Tachibana quite profoundly. When his character is hooked up on heroin at the start he's a bundle of nervous tension and exudes plenty of livewire energy, then later on as a despondent ex-con his body language is much more subtle and restrained. Mochizuki's low-key direction just wouldn't have worked if his lead wasn't totally consumed in their character, but in Ishibashi he found the perfect partner in crime. Asami Sawada is equally impressive as Yuki, despite the fact that she doesn’t seem to have made many films in her career, nevertheless she gives a true character actors performance here. As for the supporting players, the two stand-out performances for me come from Toshiyuki Kitami and Tetsuya Yuki as Mizohashi and Hirakawa respectively. Kitami gives an eccentric performance as Mizohashi that might lull some viewers into thinking he's quite an awkward, forced actor, but this is all a deliberate extension of the character's false façade, Toshiyuki never slips once and keeps this up right until the end. Eagle-eyed Takeshi Kitano fans will remember Tetsuya Yuki from his memorable turn as the deranged Yakuza boss in Getting Any? His role in this film couldn’t be any more different. In particular it demands that he has as little a presence as possible on screen and that's exactly what he does, effortlessly sinking into the background whenever the camera isn't focused upon him. The other major supporting actors Kazuhiko Kanayama and Tatsuo Yamada give far more conventional, but no less impressive performances as Yuji and Shimoyama.

Yet despite the obvious talent behind and in front of the camera, the boring formulaic Yakuza plotline ensures that ultimately the crime drama element of Another Lonely Hitman is not nearly as interesting as the romantic. Fair enough, Mochizuki ensures the focus remains on the character drama for the majority of the runtime, but whenever the plot elements kick in I found myself checking my watch to see how long was left, it's a real drag in places. Thank god for the Yuki-Tachibana storyline then, because that remains both a touching and engaging relationship which combines well with the moody Yakuza strand. Another Lonely Hitman is definitely worth checking out if you're open-minded about slow burning Yakuza dramas, but the pacing issues ensure that it's a case of merely a good film, nearly a great one.


Presentation

Presented anamorphically in a heavily window-boxed 1.67:1 ratio, Another Lonely Hitman is an ultra-low budget V-cinema release from 1995, so there's only so far you can take this transfer. With that in mind, Artsmagic's transfer isn't too displeasing really - yes it's an ugly transfer, but it's fairly consistent with their transfers for the older Miike films. However, there are still plenty of niggles that Artsmagic should've have had some control over. For a start there is a ton of Edge Enhancement present, with thick ugly halos and ringing proving to be a constant distraction. The transfer is tape sourced, detail is particularly low, and compression is a tad weak - leading to a slightly noisy image and slightly greenish blacks in one scene near the end. Contrast and brightness levels are simply not good enough; the image is too dark and contrast is too high, resulting in a distinct lack of shadow detail that renders many nighttime scenes rather difficult to watch. On the plus side the print itself is rather clean given the age of the film, with only the odd nick or scratch appearing sporadically throughout and colours are pretty solid given the washed out nature of the print.

Artsmagic have slapped the original Japanese audio onto this R1 release in DD2.0 and DD5.1 formats, both of which are free of any dropouts or other problems – that is if you don't count a shoddy 5.1 remix as a problem. Yup, the DD5.1 is another one of ArtsmagicDVD's "special remixes" that basically takes either a mono or stereo source and matrices it badly across various channels. This one's an improvement over some of their previous efforts in that the film's audio isn’t being pumped out at the same volume across every speaker in the system. Nope, in this 5.1 remix the environmental sounds and score are the loudest elements of the rear channels (although you can still detect unnatural echoing dialogue), while the front three speakers pump out the dialogue nice and loudly, but keep ambient sounds and score beings mixed a touch quieter. The end result is the almost the exact same sound across each front speaker, which means there's practically no stereo soundstage to speak of – although my instincts tell me this film was probably shot and distributed in mono anyway. This pointless 5.1 remix would be forgivable if it wasn't for their heavy-handed approach to the audio mastering. While dialogue remains pleasantly audible and reasonably clear - with only moderate tearing and muffling given the film's age and low-grade production – the ambient environmental sounds are way too loud, resulting in an unnatural amount of background noise. Likewise the bass has been horrendously blown up, leading to ultra-deep dialogue (even for the Japanese!), fuzzy drum beats, and limp, muffled gunshots.


Unsurprisingly given Artsmagic's track record, it's once again the DD2.0 track that saves this DVD presentation from audio disaster. Here they've done a much more restrained but natural mix, dialogue remains pleasantly centred and as clean and audible as the DD5.1 while the bass is warm without going overboard. Yes it still sounds muffled and hollow, but it's a lot more agreeable than the DD5.1, and Another Lonely Hitman is completely dialogue driven anyway – there's less than ten gunshots fired in the entire film.

Optional English subtitles are included, with no spelling or grammatical errors worth noting.

Extras

As usual Artsmagic has pieced together a short but informative selection of extra features. First up is another excellent Audio Commentary with Japanese Film Expert Tom Mes, which is plagued slightly by some sort of buzzing background noise, but Mes remains audible and informative throughout, providing useful information on the main actors and the famous cameos that appear throughout. He also talks us through Rokuro Mochizuki's filmography and how Another Lonely Hitman compares to his other works, but he refrains from dissecting Rokuro's themes and style too much because he has apparently discussed them at length on his audio commentary for Onibi (The Fire Within). It might be puzzling for listeners to hear Mes talk about his Onibi commentary when it's not even due out until July, but this is because ArtsmagicDVD originally intended to kickstart their Rokuro Mochizuki collection with that film instead of Another Lonely Hitman, so the commentary must have been recorded back when the old release schedules were in place. It's probably best that they did change the schedule though, as not only is Another Lonely Hitman an older film than Onibi, but it's also a thematic prequel of sorts.

Next up is a lengthy 26minute interview with the director himself. Rokuro's dressed casually in a denim shirt and baseball cap and he sits in a defensive crossed-arms position, but he's quite a talkative chap who seems quite happy to discuss his career, providing an informative overview of the writing and shooting of Another Lonely Hitman, his route from porno screenwriter/director to straight film writer/director, and also what films and directors have really inspired him. Rokuro also reveals that he doesn't really care for violence and tries not to promote it in his films, but he was worried that producers would complain at the lack of violent action in Another Lonely Hitman, and was even prepared to add murders into the film if asked! Thankfully, he wasn't.


Lastly we have Bio/Filmographies for Rokuro, Ryo Ishibashi and Kazuhiko Kanayama.

Overall

Another Lonely Hitman is an extremely understated but deeply thoughtful character study with lashings of film noir sensibilities. The performances are uniformly excellent, Rokuro's Mochizuki's direction is intelligent and realistic, but the Yakuza plotline is extremely generic and the slow deliberate pace might prove too lethargic for some. While this film certainly shares some thematic and stylistic similarities with the work of more famous contemporary directors like Takashi Miike and Takeshi Kitano, I'm not entirely sure it should be recommend freely to Western fans, only those who are prepared to accept moody, understated character dramas. ArtsmagicDVD's release provides a solid DD2.0 audio track, dodgy DD5.1 and mediocre transfer, but the extras are more than worth the price tag alone.

Film
7 out of 10
Video
5 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
7 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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