Wild Life Review
Before he found success at Cannes in 2000 with the three and a half hour arthouse road-movie Eureka and started making films with an eye on the international festival circuit, Shinji Aoyama’s earlier work for Japanese audiences could be distinguished more by its idiosyncratic approach to the expected conventions of genre material. Aoyama’s 1997 yakuza gangster movie Wild Life clearly shows a director not entirely comfortable with the genre, but willing to work within it in his own way and in the process demonstrating considerable intelligence and filmmaking ability.
A once famous boxer, Sakai Hiroki (Kosuke Toyohara) is now a nail master, working on the machines in a Pachinko parlour for his boss Mr Tsumura (Mickey Curtis). The two men have to deal with heavies from the yakuza as part of their daily business, but things have taken a more serious turn. Mizuguchi, a former employee, who has already taken revenge on the guy who split open his head in a robbery of one of the games parlours a number of years previously, has possession of a tape that a mysterious crimelord is anxious to get his hands on. This influential boss instructs the heads of both the Ozawa and Ijima mobs to find the tape and put pressure on Hiroki, who they believe knows of its whereabouts, by kidnapping his boss Tsumura. Hiroki, befriending Tsumura’s daughter Rie (Yuna Natsuo) and trying to enlist the help of a friendly policeman, sets out to find his boss and work out the mystery behind Mizuguchi’s tape, all the while trying to keep the yakuza off his back.
Wild Life is a rather unconventional yakuza movie that is initially presented in such an unfamiliar manner that it is a little difficult to follow. Characters behave in bizarre ways that are untypical of their expected roles – policemen carry out robberies in games parlours and are backed by the yakuza, a drunk senior detective causes a disturbance in a restaurant and appears a little “over-friendly” towards Hiroki. Gangsters on the other hand rather than being the well-organised, disciplined men of “honour and humanity”, appear as gaudy, badly-dressed and ill-organised street-thugs or as dangerous yet incompetent, polite gentlemen. Kinji Fukasaku of course made this blurring of the distinction between traditional good-guys and bad-guys roles and questioned the giri nijo underworld code of honour among thieves in films such as Cops vs Thugs (1975), Yakuza Graveyard (1976) and his famous Yakuza Papers series of films, at the same time making social observations about the society they lived in. Aoyama also does this to some degree in Wild Life, but doesn’t take itself quite as seriously.
The real confusion about watching this film however is not so much the questioning of roles and yakuza codes, nor even the non-linear jumping around of the plot - it’s perhaps working out the tone the director is aiming for that is the most unsettling element of the film. The best advice I can give is to hang in there, because it’s worth the ride and it all makes perfect sense in the end. A good comparison to this film is that it is rather like Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life In The Universe - initially unsettling in its bizarre characters and setting, but gradually sweeping the viewer along with its quirky charm. In fact, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s wonderful 2003 film seems far less original when seen in the light of Aoyama’s 1997 Wild Life. At the centre of the film is a Sakai Hiroki, a quiet man, a disciplined man, who is obsessively neat and organised, a character who works in a mundane job, but has a more violent background with which he is more than a match for the yakuza who are chasing him – not so different from Tadanobu Asano’s librarian Kenji in Last Life In The Universe. The film contains the same fluid pace of the off-beat romance that is interspersed with unexpected moments of black humour and scenes of gangster violence.
Aoyama demonstrates a very fresh approach to the material here with many clever touches and a lot of effective steadicam work, blending and overlapping scenes, mixing flashbacks with present day scenes. It’s not done for flashiness of technique but for other reasons, principally to drive the film forward and maintain connections between characters and events using nice visual cues and recurrent images. Or perhaps it is simply budgetary reasons that are the driving force behind the necessity of the technique. Regardless of the reasons, what Aoyama achieves is an inventive approach to the material, the characters and filming style, delivering a strong and satisfactory conclusion to an entertaining, thrilling and often humorous drama.
Artsmagic’s release Wild Life is Region 1 encoded and in NTSC format, presented on a dual-layer DVD-9 disc. Artsmagic have already released Shinji Aoyama’s earlier horror film Emblaming on DVD and will also be releasing An Obsession, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog.
The picture quality is not great. Like the few Artsmagic releases I have seen, the image is extremely soft and fuzzy – there is no sharpness or detail, colours are dull, sepia-coloured, or oversaturated. Blacks inevitably are flat, and rather murky during nighttime scenes. Macro-blocking artefacts are evident, particularly during camera movement, scene transitions and in shimmering of bright objects and thin lines and shifting backgrounds. Combing or interlacing is evident throughout. The information on the DVD case states an original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, but the film is presented anamorphically at an unusual ratio of about 1.93:1, with large black borders on all sides, which will be visible to varying degrees depending on the overscan of display devices. While the this is barely better than VHS quality and doesn’t really do the image justice, there are few marks or scratches and the transfer is certainly not unwatchable. The film seems to be strong enough to not need to rely on image quality that much, as I didn't find this too distracting.
The DVD comes with a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks. Both are strong and clear with no noticeable problems. The surround mix is mainly up front, with only occasional and sometimes artificial-sounding use of rear speakers, though the separation of low-frequencies gives the soundtrack a bit more space on the 5.1 mix.
English subtitles are provided in white font and are optional, translating the film and capturing the tone well.
The DVD comes with some useful extra features. In a specially recorded Interview with Shinji Aoyama (18:05), the director talks about his influences – seduced by the fascination of Jaws and Apocalypse Now, but inspired more by Jean-Luc Godard and John Ford as well as punk rock music to make films of his own. The interview focuses on Wild Life, on what he was trying to achieve and how he did it. In his Full-Length Feature Commentary Jasper Sharp (from Midnight Eye) promises a “rigorous” coverage of the director, the film and 90’s Japanese cinema in general, and we certainly get that. There is great detail on Aoyami and where he fits within Japanese genre cinema supplemented with quotes and reviews. Background cultural details in the film on Pachinko and yakuza are covered. It’s well-planned and superbly informative, but greatly digressive, working more as an essay rather than a commentary, since it rarely comments specifically about anything on the screen - but you will learn a lot about Japanese cinema from this. Cast & Crew Bio/Filmographies are included for the director and cast, although much of this information is elaborated on in greater detail in the commentary.
Shinji Aoyama is a talented and versatile director whose films demonstrate fresh and unusual takes on what would ordinarily be typical genre films – the horror movie (EM (Embalming)) the road movie (Eureka), the dysfunctional family drama (Desert Moon) and here in Wild Life he shows a progressive and modern approach to the gangster thriller and, as always, there is a great deal of flair and originality in his style. It’s not going to work for everyone – some might prefer a more consistent or familiar approach to the yakuza genre material, with characters in more easily definable and recognisable roles – but if you enjoy the quirky charm of Last Life In The Universe, Wild Life will entertain and delight. Artsmagic’s Region 1 DVD release of the film is far from exemplary, showing a rather soft and fuzzy image, but it’s certainly adequate and has certainly made the effort as far as extra features go.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:52:13