Although tonally peculiar and ragged in construction, contempo Japanese drama "The Samurai That Night" has enough going for it elsewhere to compel interest.

Although tonally peculiar and ragged in construction, contempo Japanese drama “The Samurai That Night” has enough going for it elsewhere to compel interest. Adapting his own stage play, debuting helmer Masaaki Akahori juxtaposes two unlucky antagonists thrown into conflict after a tragic road accident, affording leads Masato Sakai and Takayuki Yamada a chance to shine as two very different men deranged by grief and guilt, respectively. After a bit of fest travel, the pic opens domestically in November, and should draw followers, given its locally well-known cast.

Opening scenes shows Kenichi (Masato Sakai, “Key of Life”) devouring tub after tub of creme caramel and ignoring the phone as his wife, Hisako (Maki Sakai) leaves a message on the answering machine, establishing from the get-go that this owner of a metalwork shop has got a few mental screws loose. Later that fateful August day, Hisako is knocked off her bicycle by a car driven by Kijima (Takayuki Yamada, “13 Assassins”), who not only drives away, leaving Hisako to die in the road, but discourages his friend and passenger Kobayashi (Go Ayano) from phoning for an ambulance.

Action fast-forwards several years, and Kenichi is still obsessively scarfing down creme caramels and listening, over and over again, to the last answering machine message Hisako left. He’s also been sending anonymous notes to Kijima, now out of jail after serving two years, warning him that on the anniversary of Hisako’s death, he plans to kill the perp, and then himself.

Kenichi’s good-hearted brother-in-law, Aoki (Hirofumi Arai), tries unsuccessfully to get him to date other women and move on, and even tries to speak to Kijima on Kenichi’s behalf. But he only gets beaten up by the thuggish Kijima, who clearly wasn’t reformed by prison in any way. Indeed, scenes showing Kijima beating others and suggesting the offscreen rape of a masochistic femme traffic cop (Mitsuki Tanimura) will likely have auds rooting for Kenichi to kill this odious man.

But helmer Akahori has a more humane strategy in mind for the narrative’s outcome, one that rather belies the revenge-tale trajectory suggested by the title. None of the fallible characters here is made of samurai stuff, which makes for a more interesting, nuanced drama once the clock ticks down to the climax.

Ace perfs by Sakai and Yamada earn aud sympathy for their characters, even when they behave abhorrently. Supporting cast is also strong, although Akahori is a little too fond of giving them quirky moments of would-be comic relief that feel discordant with pic’s main theme. That said, the black comedy works best in a scene involving Kenichi and a karaoke-crazy prostitute (Sakura Ando).

Evocative sound and music rep standout elements in an otherwise serviceable tech package.

The Samurai That Night

Japan

Production

A Phantom Film Co. release of a Phantom Films, King Record, TV Man Union, Comrade Co., Imagica presentation of a TV Man Union production. (International sales: Phantom Film, Tokyo.) Produced by Keiko Fuimura. Executive producers, Keisuke Konishi, Hirofumi Shigemura, Hiromitsu Sugita, Keigo Nishida, Masashi Nakamura. Directed, written by Masaaki Akahori.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Yuta Tsukinaga; editor, Koichi Takahashi; music, Mina Kubota; production designer, China Suzuki; set decorator, Fumiaki Suzaka; costume designer, Sayaka Takahashi; sound (Dolby Digital), Masashi Furuya; line producer, Yuji Hirabayashi; associate producer, Yukihiko Yamaguchi; assistant director, Katsuji Shigeki. Reviewed at London Film Festival (First Feature, competing), Oct. 11, 2012. (Also in Montreal World Film Festival.) Running time: 120 MIN.

With

Masato Sakai, Takayuki Yamada, Hirofumi Arai, Maki Sakai, Go Ayano, Sakura Ando, Mitsuki Tanimura, Kinuo Yamada, Tsutomu Takahashi, Tomorowo Taguchi.

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