iSugio

Smuggler – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Ryosuke Kinuta is a failed actor who falls into debt to the mob and must now work for them. His job is to smuggle or dispose of bodies and for that he makes a 50,000 Yen a day. He works with Jo and his assistant. When Ryosuke takes part in transporting an assassin, he soon finds himself having to use all of his acting skills to stay alive.

Director Katsuhito Ishii has crafted some of the most peculiar Japanese films over the last decade, and is definitely not one to be easily categorized as befitting to one genre. Whether this stems from the comical Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl (1998) to the unusual family drama of The Taste of Tea (2004), to the bizarre, episodic nature of Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005), Ishii truly shows little constraint in his depiction of the mildly absurd lifestyles of the characters within his films. With Smuggler, we find Ishii once again establishing an out of the ordinary narrative that is humorous, action-packed, and even bordering on being overly sadistic.

Like perhaps some of his previously mentioned films, Smuggler presents a wide and colorful cast of characters that each showcases distinct qualities that make them memorable throughout the film. It certainly helps that Smuggler is based upon the manga series by Shohei Manabe, mainly because it actually consists of a relatively simple narrative, unlike say, Funky Forest. Here we are given who the bad guys are and who the good guy is, with Kinuta—played by the exceptionally talented Satoshi Tsumabuki—representing the average slacker caught up in events way over his head between the two parties.

Speaking of Kinuta, the film portrays him as a man caught up in excessive debt and forcibly given the rather unsavory task of “disposing” of unnecessary things—things such as bodies accumulated through yakuza executions and the like. We see him as a man who views himself as a failure in life, one trapped within a system of his own demise and unable to escape. Oddly, this dire predicament allows Kinuta to view his situation as something he can rise above simply through his acting ability—if only after he can get through being practically tortured to death.

You see, for all the black humor that Smuggler so delightfully showcases, its second half spends a significant amount of time on Kinuta unfortunately undergoing the arduous process of getting tortured due to mistaking identity—and not the break a finger or two-type of torture either. We’re talking hammers, corkscrews, and hot irons, which really places Smuggler as almost an entirely different film from its first half. This isn’t to say that these segments are uncalled for, but they do question the thin line between being black comedy or purely sadistic—with the latter seeming the more prominent choice.

One can say that these particularly segments in the film do point to Kinuta’s acting talent to essentially endure such horrendous torture by simply faking his own pain, but it doesn’t remove the fact that he’s ultimately still getting tortured. This comes as a surprise because there are only several short moments in the film prior to these scenes of torture in which we see Kinuta’s acting talent is utilized to get him out of a tough situation, so to see the film spend a considerable time on showcasing his acting talent through him being tortured to a bloody pulp is rather strange and unfitting to say the least. All the previous charm expressed in the film is lost in these segments, which seem more as an excuse to simply show extreme violence than anything else. Considering the graphic nature of the manga in which the film is based upon, this would be understandable, but then the next question arises: does one really want to see someone get tortured for such a long period of time? There should be more of a purpose behind such a showing, giving more of a reason to endure such scenes. While one can see that these moments ultimately lead to a sense of self-empowerment for Kinuta, it’s only briefly elaborated on as a significant development for him as a character.

Besides the inclusion of these awkward moments, there are several standout action sequences within the film that exemplify Ishii’s talent towards offering a visceral experience to the audience. These moments, although usually delegated to the realm of violence, are exceptionally well done. As for the rest of the characters, which has always been a special element of Ishii’s previous films, returns here as a shining example of unique characters but they aren’t as important to the narrative as one would hope, mainly relying on the character Kinuta to pull the weight in terms of character development. This situates Smuggler more as a singular character study more than anything—a rather superficial character study, but one nonetheless. Perhaps if less extreme violence was expressed in the film—or at least provided more substance to support its use—Smuggler would’ve been a much more humorous and introspective exploration of the minions that clean up the dirty work of the yakuza. What we have here is a mess of a film that relies more on showcasing extreme violence rather than providing the audience with any real meaningfulness.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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