This is where it all started for Katsuhito Ishii. Samehada Otoko to Momojiri Onna (Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl) is a manga come to life, a thoroughly Japanese crime/comedy that somehow managed to land a broad international release even before Asian cinema semi-boomed in the early 00's. It's also a great place to start for people not familiar with Ishii's films, as it captures the various aspects of his style quite well.
Back in the day Katsuhito Ishii (Party 7, Sumagura: Omae no Mirai O Hakobe, Cha no Aji, Yama no Anata) was often linked to the work of Tarantino and Ritchie. Sure enough, Samehada Otoko contains some silly gangsters who like to quarrel about nothing much at all, but that's where the comparison ends. Those original statements were probably a combination of a marketing ploy not to be taken too seriously and a lack of familiarity with the manga/anime scene, so don't go expecting a Pulp Fiction/Snatch rip-off or you'll be quite disappointed.
Samehada Otoko is a lot weirder and more focused on the comedy aspect. There are plenty of Yakuza hanging around of course, but they are far removed from the cliché image of the movie gangster. The rest of the characters are equally insane, in particular the private investigator called Yamada who stands out for his otherworldly behavior. There are also various slapstick-like scenes you'll never see in the hipper crime/comedies of the '90s, so it's best to just expect an anime turned live-action, helmed by one of Japan's better comedy directors.
The film follows Samehada, a bold gangster who just cheated his own gang out of a lot of money. By chance he bumps into Toshiko, a young lady on the run from her perverted uncle. The both team up, but soon enough they have to hit the road to outrun Samehada's former gang members. To make things worse, Toshiko's uncle hires a private investigator in order to find Toshiko and bring her back to his motel. Toshiko is turning 18 soon and her uncle plans to marry her on that very day.
Visually I'm very much in two minds about Samehada Otoko. On the one hand there are plenty of quirky camera angles and there's no lack of playful editing, but everything looks just so damn grim and grainy. Maybe it's the transfer, I admit the DVD I watched was of pretty poor quality, but even then the film could've used some vibrant colors to brighten things up. When you start to compare it to films like Survive Style 5+ or Donju it's just hard to ignore how Ishii could've improved on the visuals.
The soundtrack is pretty typical fare. Upbeat pop/rock with some jazzy influences makes up most of the soundtrack. It creates a happy, pleasant vibe but it's not really my kind of thing. Then again, a comedy like this doesn't really need a unique soundtrack to shine, as long as it doesn't hamper the light-hearted, good-natured atmosphere it's pretty much mission accomplished.
Looking at the cast though, it's no surprise that Samehada Otoko still turned out to be a great film. Tadanobu Asano is helming the project while Ittoku Kishibe, Susumu Terajima and Yoshiyuki Morishita all make notable appearances. But it's Thunderbird puppet come to life Tatsuya Gashuin who takes the cake. He is completely otherworldly in his role as personal investigator. He takes over every scene he appears in and provides the best laughs. Ishii did an amazing job uncovering the man's unique talent.
It might take a while to understand who's who in this film, but once all the characters are introduced and the story gets rolling Samehada Otoko is a constant stream of zany comedy moments. There isn't much room for the softer site Ishii showcased in some of his later films, though there are a few scenes near the end that stand out as a bit more emotional. Still, comedy is what this film is all about and comedy is what you'll get. Whether you can actually enjoy it will depend on how you deal with Japanese weirdness.
Samehada Otoko is starting to show its age a little. It's a bit dreary and murky for a comedy and more recent films have improved greatly on the formula. That said, a superb cast, a batch of weird characters and an upbeat score still make for an enjoyable comedy that packs plenty of laughs. Tatsuya Gashuin is clearly the star of the show, Katsuhito Ishii would learn a lot from this first experience and would return a much stronger director. Samehada Otoko might have lost some of its shine over time, but it's still a pretty great film and a seriously fun watch to boot.