After what seems like an entire decade, Katsuhito Ishii resurfaces with Smuggler, his latest feature length film based on the popular manga going by the same name. Gone is the lighter, melancholic tone of Ishii's hit films, instead he reaches back to his earlier films, mixing and matching a series of freaky characters into a dark crime setting. The result is every bit as fun and outlandish as his earlier work, proving Ishii hasn't lost his touch over the years.
Most people first ran into the work of Katsuhito Ishii when they heard of Cha No Aji, toss My Darling Of The Mountains into the mix and it's no surprise that Ishii's latest caused quite a few raised eyebrows amongst unsuspecting festival attendants. But if you've seen Ishii's Shark Skin Man & Peach Hip Girl or Party 7 you won't really fall off your chair when watching Smuggler, though I must admit that this is probably the darkest film he's made so far.
Gone is the explicit humor (safe a few stand-out moments), but there is still plenty to smirk about (the insane cast of characters makes sure of that). Instead the film focuses a lot more on the darker parts of the story. There are some pretty cool and stylish action sequences, combined with a little gore and torture. Not enough for gore hounds to satisfy their urges, but sensitive viewers have been complaining left and right about a couple of explicitly gruesome scenes.
The film is split in four distinct sequences. First we get to know Ryosuke, a leech who has no aspirations to make something out of his life. He gets suckered by a Chinese gang and ends up with a 3 million yen debt. To pay off his debt he becomes a "mover of goods" (no questions asked). The second part introduces two Chinese killers who are being set up by their gang boss. Several different stories intertwine, intrigue rears its ugly head ... you should know the drill by now.
Visually everything looks mighty slick. The film appears to wear a dark veil that mutes all colors, even during the day scenes. It adds plenty to the ominous atmosphere running throughout the film. Other definite highlights are the action sequences that make great use of slow-motion trickery, the action choreography is also spot on. Sharply edited and beautifully shot, Smuggler may well be Ishii's best-looking film to date.
The soundtrack is probably the weakest part of the film. A simple selection of background tracks that does little to spark a real interest. It's okay in the sense that as long as you don't pay too much attention to it, it does the job fairly well. But once you start to notice the flat tunes and arrangements you can't help but wonder why Ishii didn't put a bit more effort into the soundtrack. It would've given Smuggler that extra bit of polish.
The cast on the other hand is truly sublime. Masatoshi Nagase is always a pleasure to behold (he does look surprisingly old in this film), though I believe it's Masanobu Ando that makes the biggest impression as Vertebrae, one of the Chinese killers. Littered with tattoos and scars and sporting an ash-white hairdo, his actual presence is as impressive as his performance. There are quite a few notable cameos too. Ren Osugi and Susumu Terajima make a great surprise appearance, Ishii favorite Tatsuya Gashuin (the one with the eyebrows) takes on a slighter bigger part (though he's a bit difficult to recognize apart from his distinctive voice).
Smuggler is an extremely entertaining slice of dark entertainment. Littered with weird and freaky characters, the four chapters play out well and make for an interesting finale. There are no deeper motives, no hidden themes or overarching analogies though, Ishii fully commits himself to the entertainment value and that's actually a plus here. No muddled attempts at anything bigger or more, just two hours of old-fashioned fun.
Most Katsuhito Ishii films will feel right at home when watching Smuggler, those who only know Ishii's lighter work and consider Bambi to be borderline acceptable for a Disney film should take note that Smuggler is quite a bit darker than his other films. Still, the fun factor of Smuggler remains incredibly high and coupled with the tight finish of the film it belongs right up there with the best of Ishii's work. A testament that there is still some life left in Japanese cinema.