'Strangers in the City'

A teacher faces big-city gangsters and his inner demons while trying to rescue a former student from Tokyo's decadence in the murky, Chandleresque thriller "Strangers in the City."

A teacher faces big-city gangsters and his inner demons while trying to rescue a former student from Tokyo’s decadence in the murky, Chandleresque thriller “Strangers in the City.” Adapting a novel by Tatsu Shimizu, Japanese action journeyman Junji Sakamoto (“KT”) does his best to keep the yarn moving along, but the helmer’s well-earned rep for kinetic filmmaking is overwhelmed by a cumbersome plot. Pic is skedded for domestic release in November and should prove mildly successful, but prospects around Asia will be limited. “Strangers” may prove too heady for the international ancillary market.

Runaway student Yukari (Nao Minamisawa) fails to respond to requests to return home, where her grandmother lies dying in a small-town hospital. Yukari’s former teacher Kazuo Hatano (Toru Nakamura) sets off for Tokyo to retrieve the missing girl. There, he tracks her to a sleek Azabu apartment where gangsters stake out the premises. It seems Yukari is in more peril than anyone suspected. The way Hatano outruns the thugs through the district’s back alleys also suggests Hatano isn’t in Tokyo — or in trouble — for the first time.

Hatano’s investigations uncover a romantic link between Yukari and “businessman” Tsunoda (Shun Sugata), who is implicated in a shady construction deal for a rich Tokyo school, and the death of the administrator of the school, where Hatano himself was once a teacher. Narrative is further driven by the revelation that Hatano had to leave the school in shame, and that the student, Masako (Manami Konishi), who figured in that scandal is involved in this one, too.

Shoichi Maruyama’s script privileges exposition over action, but Sakamoto manages to keep the story moving. Core tale is as complex as “The Big Sleep” and “Chinatown” rolled into one, and like “Sleep,” it suffers from having to jettison the pornographic details. But what Howard Hawks artfully dodged with help from a forgiving and knowing audience, this film appears too cowardly to tackle head-on, namely the protag’s implied pedophilia. Given Sakamoto’s willingness to confront child trafficking in his 2008 film “Children of the Dark,” it’s doubtful the helmer can be blamed for the screenplay’s apparent reticence to probe the source material’s heart of darkness.

Nevertheless, the pic erupts sexually first before the violence sets in, with a temperature-raising extended love scene between Hatano and Masako at the pic’s midpoint. When unrestrained violence does arrive, it’s entertaining and well choreographed, but comes far too late for full audience engagement. Adding to the sense of anticlimax, Hatano’s true motivation remains muddy; auds will feel they are being kept out of the loop even as surprises are revealed.

Thesping nails the requisite noirish atmosphere. Konishi exhibits a powerful range of suppressed emotions as Hatano’s former child bride-cum-Tokyo bargirl. Nakamura, however, seems hamstrung by his character’s emotional flaws, and despite Hatano’s determination to solve the pic’s deepest mystery, the actor plays the role like a beaten man, never letting the worm turn so auds can root for him.

Lensing by vet cameraman Seizo Sengen vividly captures the urban Tokyo experience without resorting to a “Lost in Translation”-style travelogue. Numerous images showcasing the Japanese capital at its neon-rich best give the proceedings a seductive noir feel.

Strangers in the City

Japan

Production

A Toei Co. release of a Central Arts, Strangers in the City Prod. Committee production. (International sales: Toei Co., Tokyo.) Produced by Mitsuru Kurosawa, Tatsuya Kunimatsu. Executive producer, Shigeyuki Endo. Directed by Junji Sakamoto. Screenplay, Shoichi Maruyama, based on a novel by Tatsuo Shimizu.

Crew

Camera (color), Seizo Sengen; editor, Shinichi Fushima; music, Goro Yasukawa; production designer, Hidetaka Ozawa; sound (Dolby Digital), Junichi Shima; stunt coordinator, Tatsumi Nikamoto; assistant director, Akihiro Onodera. Reviewed at Tokyo Film Festival (Special Screenings), Oct. 24, 2010. (Also in Pusan Film Festival -- A Window on Asian Cinema.) Running time: 123 MIN.

With

Toru Nakamura, Manami Konishi, Nao Minamisawa, Shun Sugata, Tsuyoshi Ujiki, Takeshi Ohbayashi, Denden, Junko Miyashita, Eriko Sato, Mitsuki Tanimura, Tetta Sugimoto, Arata, Yosuke Kubozuka, Renji Ishibashi, Kyoko Enami. (Japanese, English dialogue)
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