J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Kadokawa at Japan Society: The Beast to Die

In 1980, it was not Japan’s veterans who were a menace to society. It was their twisted war reporters. At least such was the case with Kunihiko Date. He captured images that were too gruesome for the staid Japanese press. In America, they could have made him a Pulitzer Prize-winner, but in Japan they made him a Dostoevskian outcast and eventually a Travis Bickle-like psychopath. One of several adaptations of Haruhiko Oyabu’s novel, Toru Murakawa’s The Beast to Die screens as part of the Japan Society retrospective: Pop! Goes Cinema: Kadokawa Films and 1980s Japan.

In the opening scene, Date ambushes a cop whom he seems to have some shared history. They are pretty evenly matched, but Date eventually kills the detective, taking his gun to rob a Yakuza casino. Again, the crime is not pretty, but Date survives, several million yen richer. Of course, there is a man hunt on, but they are looking for usual suspects. The quiet professional-looking Date is largely free to move onto his next target.

That would be a large commercial bank that takes the deposits of large several downtown department stores. As a dry run, Date sets up an innocent banker to be the fall guy. Based on the reaction times he observes, Date decides he needs a partner. Sanada, an angry counter-culture drop-out waiter who makes a scene at class reunion Date reluctantly attends looks perfect for the job. There are only two complications. Reiko Hanada, an impossibly sweet classical music fan Date meets at a concert might have a remote, outside chance of re-awakening his conscience. As a more pressing concern, lone wolf Det. Hideyuki Kashiwagi keeps sniffing around Date, based on a combination of intuition and eye-witness reports from the casino murders.

Until it runs off the rails in a spectacular third act derailment, Beast is a deliciously slick and groovy thriller in the tradition of The Man Who Stole the Sun that also portrays the not so latent violence of the 1960s and 1970s hippie movement. Frankly, during the second act, Date and Sanada are a map-to-the-stars’-homes away from being Charles Manson and the rush of the bank heist will send them hurtling over the edge.

Yusaku Matsuda (who tragically died shortly after filming his international break-out role in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain) is absolutely chilling as the sociopathic Date. He is truly an electric yet clammy and off-putting screen presence. On the other side of the spectrum, actress and recording star Asami Kobayashi is utterly heart-breaking as Hanada. Takeshi Kaga’s turn as Sanada basically illustrates Eric Hoffer’s True Believer, in the worst, most sullenly entitled way. Hideo Murota adds a further note of unpredictability as the ethically ambiguous Det. Kashiwagi.

Most of Beast to Die is a massively hard-boiled crime thriller, but viewers should be forewarned, it climaxes with some pretty tough stuff. Nevertheless, there is no denying its enormous style, especially the use of classical music and Akihiko’s funky era-appropriate themes. Enthusiastically recommended for suitably prepared viewers, The Beast to Die screens tomorrow (11/15) at the Japan Society, as part of their ongoing Kadokawa retrospective.

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