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March 20, 2008

Movie Review – Kurosagi Movie (Eiga: Kurosagi) (2008)

by Master Pillow

Kurosagi, the eleven episode drama released in 2006, might not have been the pinnacle of Japanese prime time television but it had enough charm and inherent spunk that made the show feel like goofy fun. It also helped that it had two compelling leads in Tomohisa Yamashita and Maki Horikita who were reunited after showing much onscreen chemistry in the critically lauded Nobuta Wo Produce made a year earlier in 2005. With Kurosagi a hit fans hoped for a second season but instead the producers decided that it was time to bring Tomohisa Yamashita to the silver screen in his first starring feature film thus we have Eiga: Kurosagi which takes place more or less right after the end of the series. However, like other television shows which attempt to make the jump to the cinema, it appears the filmmakers have made the same mistakes that have often times plagued these translations. In short, television and film might on the surface appear to be similar but they are in fact totally different mediums and a wise filmmaker would be aware of the massive differences between both.

The movie follows the basic episodic structure of the show featuring the title character Kurosagi (Tomohisa Yamashita), a swindler that has made it a career to take down other swindlers and return the lost money to those who had been conned out of it. This time around Kurosagi is out to bring down Tetsu Ishigaki (Naoto Takenaka) a man responsible for multiple money laundering schemes involving promissory notes that end up bankrupting hapless businesses. To add fire to Kurosagi’s drive he’s doing this to retrieve the money lost by a widow who needs it to save her child that desperately requires heart surgery. Along the way Kurosagi discovers for the first time in his life that though his schemes may be smart that inevitably that there’s always a chance it might lead to the death of someone involved in these illegal activities, a result that weighs heavily on his heart.

The central issue with Eiga: Kurosagi is that it feels like a single episode of the show blown up and expanded into a feature film without any consideration that the thin narrative is clearly lacking. This is actually odd as there should be more than enough material for a two hour running time yet it quickly becomes clear that the filmmakers have different goals here and that the central idea of showcasing Tomohisa Yamashita trumps all others. Now there’s no problem with this since Tomohisa Yamashita is clearly the title character but by placing even more emphasis on Kurosagi’s exploits screenplay writer Eriko Shinozaki basically throws away all pretense of adding subplots for the other returning characters. This relegates both Maki Horikita and Aikawa Sho to mere props and destroys all semblance of juxtaposing Kurosagi with his peers.

Although the show featured an episodic format showcasing Kurosagi’s efforts in swindling other swindlers it also managed to run parallel storylines mainly revolving around the naive young law student Tsurara Yoshikawa (Maki Horikita) who continually challenged Kurosagi to give up his villainous ways and to follow the law. It also helped that it was obvious that this pairing also hinted at a possible romance between the two as sparks flew whenever they verbally jostled. The movie however throws all that out the window as Tsurara has about five minutes or less worth of screen time in which all of the scenes are tangential to the plot. In fact, not only are they unrelated, they are totally perfunctory shots of her milling about the scenery and there’s no mention of their past history. With Tsurara out of the picture there’s no character to act as his conscience. This robs the film of its redemptive romantic subplot and instead of having Kurosagi impart in conversation with Tsurara about his inherent emotional stress we get endless shots of him internally moaning about his plight which does nothing but drag the film’s pace into the gutter.

Let’s face it, Tomohisa Yamashita’s icy demeanor and pretty boy looks will certainly excite the young female demographic but at this stage in his career he doesn’t have the acting chops to pull of internal emotional struggles past the point of staring blankly at the camera or excessive pouting. The movie takes great pains in trying to create and nurture the irony of Kurosagi’s current situation vis a vis his mentor Toshio Katsuragi (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in that it plays upon the central issue that only your closest friends can betray you. As Brutus backstabbed Caesar in the end the audience is meant to relate the play to Kurosagi who knows that Katsuragi played a role in his own family’s grisly demise. However, as intriguing as this might be, director Yasuharu Ishii is not successful in linking this metaphor with his main plot involving Kurosagi attempting to swindle Tetsu Ishigaki (Naoto Takenaka).

Instead, Yasuharu Ishii relies on ham-fisted techniques to highlight this odd pairing of Kurosagi and Katsuragi by perpetually showing them meeting on the set of a University production of Julius Caesar. Talk about being too literal. This sets up a series of segments whereby Kurosagi would set up his swindling scheme and then suddenly show up on the Caesar set to talk to Katsuragi who in turn decides to play up their relationship by continually lying down in a makeshift coffin prop for no reason other than to appear dramatic. However, instead of being effective this becomes totally distracting and downright risible as one begins to wonder why they just can’t meet in his restaurant and go over their intertwined pasts over a drink or two.

Another element of the show that has been gutted is Aikawa Sho as police inspector Kashima Masaru otherwise known as the cop with a cackling laugh that would more suit Batman’s Joker. I jest, yet Kashima is supposed to be the law enforcement agent who has spent his life trying to bring down Kurosagi and his mentor Katsuragi. Now to be fair the series usually showed him and his police brethren as being a bit bubbling and continually two steps behind Kurosagi but yet again it was an effective juxtaposition as audiences saw how Kashima slowly began to respect Kurosagi’s work albeit with continuous disdain. Like Tsurara’s plot Kashima is also reduced to mere window dressing with about the same five minutes of screen time making the film feel as if the cops are even bigger buffoons once again. This also removes all tension as there’s never a threat that Kashima will catch Kurosagi in the act of swindling.

Director Yasuharu Ishii also did the television series but this familiarity with the plot does not serve him well as the film is unevenly paced, lurching forward in fits feeling much like a backfiring car. With the episodic narrative expanded to two hours Yasuharu Ishii has no choice but to add lingering shots of Tomohisa Yamashita trudging through the environment which instead of lasting a few seconds sometimes drags on for far too long destroying all attempt at eliciting any emotional response from the audience. Take many of the conversational scenes between Kurosagi and Katsuragi that drone on and on with multiple pauses in their cadence as they stare at one another although what is actually said is of very little consequence. Clearly some time in the editing booth was needed to pare down these extended bouts of silence.

Also, there’s a lack of foresight here as Yasuharu Ishii does not in any way make use of the film’s expanded canvas falling back on keeping his subjects in the middle of the camera without much use of the added dimensions. Editing is kept to the bare necessities and though some might say that it’s refreshing that the camera is basically static all the time it doesn’t help when the film attempts to crank up the tension but all that is apparent is a faster sounding soundtrack. In short this really feels like episode 12 in the show instead of a cinematic production worthy of the big screen.

As an added issue, newcomers to the franchise will be completely lost as the movie makes next to no attempt to go over past events. This makes the film totally impenetrable and a massive lost opportunity to bring in new fans. While the overall plot may be simple enough the character motivations especially those between the leads makes next to no sense without previous knowledge.

While the series could afford bouts of goofiness and less than stellar double-crossing swindler logic that wouldn’t even con an infant out of his pacifier it’s just inexcusable that these elements were not removed from the feature film. Once again the actual machinations leading to Tetsu Ishigaki’s ultimate downfall seem downright pedestrian and not befitting of a master swindler who has a lifetime of experience dealing with morally bankrupt money laundering schemes. It also doesn’t help that Tomohisa Yamashita doesn’t have the acting prowess to properly differentiate between his various disguises making Ishigaki seem like a complete moron when one realizes that Kurosagi looks almost exactly the same in any of his different outfits. As a piece of advice for the next film — at least wear some prosthetic makeup or something to hide the fact that Kurosagi is attempting multiple costumes/personas.

Eiga: Kurosagi is not a particular bad film but it’s certainly vanilla bland filmmaking at its worst. It’s obvious that the film has been made as a vehicle for rising star Tomohisa Yamashita but this isn’t going to silence his many critics as there are not enough scenes which require him to delve deep into his emotional reserve. I’m reminded of the fact that being cool is more of an attitude than just outward appearance and though Tomohisa Yamashita is certainly a handsome man he’s certainly lacking the inner fortitude to project his character past his striking wardrobe. The film itself was a hit but I sincerely hope that everyone involved realizes that what made this series work its charms are Kurosagi’s involvement with his supporting cast and without them the movie feels completely emotionally hollow and disingenuous.

** out of ****

2008, Japan, 127 Minutes, Shogakukan/Toho Company
Directed by Yasuharu Ishii
Screenplay by Eriko Shinozaki
Original Music by Kosuke Yamashita
Cinematography by Koji Harada, Tetsuro Mori
Film Editing by Shigeki Matsuo

Kurosaki: Tomohisa Yamashita
Tsurara Yoshikawa: Maki Horikita
Toshio Katsuragi: Tsutomu Yamazaki
Tetsu Ishigaki: Naoto Takenaka
Kashima Masaru: Aikawa Sho
Yoichi Shiraishi: Kôji Katô
Reiko Okegawa: Naoko Iijima
Yukari Mishima: Yui Ichikawa
Makiko Hayase: Kaoru Okunuki
Watanuki: Tsurube Shôfukutei
Mikimoto: Shirô Kishibe

© 2008 The Galactic Pillow

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