Bad Lands

2023 / 143m - Japan
Crime, Thriller
Bad Lands poster

Masato Harada is one of Japan's underexplored gems, but ever since he struck a deal with Netflix his films have been a lot easier to get to for his fans in the West. Bad Lands is Harada's latest project, and while it didn't look all that special on paper, I'm familiar enough with his work by now to know that Harada's power lies in execution, not concept. I wasn't too worried going in and I wasn't too surprised when Bad Lands turned out to be another quality production. And the nicest thing is that it is readily available for all to watch.

screencap of Bad Lands

Harada has been directing films for over three decades now. Usually, that means the energy and enthusiasm have started to fade from a director's oeuvre, but Harada's work still feels vigorous and dynamic. It's not easy to define what exactly makes his films stand out, but they always do. Harada is capable of working in different genres, generally acing the genre component without his films ever feeling like some basic, core genre fun. Bad Lands is another great example of this. Yes, it's a police procedural at heart, but not quite like any you've seen before.

Even though there are plenty of crime and Yakuza elements here, this isn't a full-on Yakuza film (like his previous picture, Hell Dogs). It's closer to a personal drama of a young girl caught and exploited by the seedy underbelly of society, whilst various people are trying to find and capture her. Harada slowly reveals key details throughout the film, opening up the story and its universe, without ever taking away all the mystery. There is something manga-esque to the film, something slightly larger-than-life, but it never ventures into obvious comic book territory.

Neri is forced to flee Tokyo and ends up back in Osaka, her hometown. She is picked up off the street by a gang leader, and he makes her part of his crime organization. Neri becomes a catcher, an accomplice, and an aid in a phone extortion scheme. The ties of the syndicate run far and wide and the setup of the organization is meticulous, so the police have a hard time getting to the ring leaders. They land on Neri and hope she can help incriminate the higher-ups. But then Neri's brother turns up. He's a loose canon and when he joins the gang, things quickly spiral out of control.

screencap of Bad Lands

Visually speaking, Harada's films are never that flashy or in your face, but they're always very slick and polished-looking. Bad Lands is no exception. The sets are detailed, the camera work flows well (there were some cool tracking shots) and the editing often carries the motion between separate scenes. There are a few landmark shots that give the film a bit of extra visual flair, but there's never any showboating. I personally wouldn't have minded that little extra visual prowess, but that's just nitpicking when a film looks this accomplished.

The score is by far the least exciting part of the film. It's one of those soundtracks that is there to cover up silences and provide some background noise that sets the mood. It's not at all intrusive, it never impacted the film negatively, but I had to skip through it again because I'd forgotten all about it once I started this review. I think Harada could score some extra points there if he wanted, then again it's not as if the music dragged the film down. It's just the potential of these little extras that make the difference between a great film and a spectacular one.

So let's talk Sakura Ando. She's one of Japan's leading actresses, no doubt about that. She also often ends up in indie and arthouse dramas though, which are a bit more hit-and-miss for me. In the past she has already proven herself in genre films, Bad Lands seems to be a good reminder for people like me that she can also easily ace less realistic parts. Many "serious" or "respected" actors would stumble trying to tackle her part here, but she smashed it and elevated the film singlehandedly. The rest of the cast is good too, but they all pale next to Ando.

screencap of Bad Lands

Bad Lands is one big discovery for the audience, which is a good thing because it's a rather long film. The introduction, a segment detailing the schemes and the organization Neri is part of, leaves quite a bit in the dark despite being a very elongated segment. Some of the missing details will be revealed or clarified later on, others are just left to the viewer's imagination. I very much appreciated that balance, but from experience, I realize it's going to be divisive. I wasn't bored for a single minute though, which is quite a feat for a film that stretches well beyond the two-hour mark.

Bad Lands is a ride, a film that takes a personal story and turns it into a sprawling crime film. The styling is pristine, Ando is exemplary and there isn't a boring moment in sight. It's maybe a little too different to be dropped randomly on Netflix, but fans of Asian cinema will feel right at home with this one and the fact that it is just one click away makes things so much easier. It's nice to see Harada forging on, delivering films that don't conform to the norm while remaining firmly set in the realm of broad entertainment. Fingers crossed Harada keeps his streak up.