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Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl

Japan (1998), 108 minutes
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Sie Kohinata, Susumu Terashima, Kimie Shingyoji, Shingo Tsurumi, Yohachi Shimida
Reviewer: Vance Aandahl
Genre: Action, Comedy
Rating: 5

During a key scene in the third film of Alexandro Jodorowsky’s Mexican Trilogy, The Holy Mountain, the protagonist defecates inside a giant bell jar. A holy man fills the bell jar with exotically colored vapors and fumes, heats it and cools it, bathes it in tinctures and irradiates it with sacred light. Gradually, the pile of human excrement undergoes a series of transmutations until at last the alchemical wizardry is complete and it has become a pile of pure gold. The scene symbolizes Jodorowsky’s own aspirations. Turning excrement into gold is the ultimate artistic challenge. Movies that start with grandiose subject matter all too frequently leave us yawning, but movies that turn excrement into gold quicken our heart rates, flare our nostrils like an excited stallion’s, and horripilate our napes.

A good example is the 1960 French New Wave masterpiece Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard’s first and best film. With a magic touch that defies rational analysis, Godard elevated the Weegee-inspired Grade B Hollywood gangster flicks of the 1940’s and 1950’s into high art, sparking a worldwide revolution in cinematic technique. Another good example is Katsuhito Ishii’s Shark Skin Man And Peach Hip Girl, an adaptation of a yakuza manga created by Minetaro Mochizuki. Ishii is no Godard, but give him credit for studying Godard and cleverly adapting many of Godard’s tricks. Not quite capable of turning a crappy gangster comic book into pure gold, Ishii does manage to convert it into solid brass with an attractive silver filigree.

The plot of Shark Skin Man And Peach Hip Girl echoes the plot of Breathless in many particulars, and there are some key points of resemblance between their defiant, on-the-run, anti-hero protagonists Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Samehada (Tadanobu Asano), but more importantly, we can see Godard’s influence in Ishii’s use of specific cinematographic and editing techniques. During much of Shark Skin Man And Peach Hip Girl, a freely moving hand-held camera creates in the viewer the illusion that he is walking around inside the film, mingling with the characters. Dozens of startling jump cuts hurtle us forward in time, and in several scenes a sequence of stutter cuts conveys quickly the sense of time passing slowly. All of these techniques are also striking features of Breathless.

Ishii has cut the combat scenes so severely that we see only some of what happens, flashes and glimpses of carnage, not the tediously prolonged enactment of violence that characterizes so many Hollywood productions. By contrast he allows idle conversations to go on at length, especially if they have no relevance to the main thrust of the plot. In one scene four gangsters sit in a parked car waiting for orders, and as they wait, each tells a leisurely story about the bad influence his father had on him.

In another scene, we see three gangsters eating dinner and listen to two of them debate the questions of when the soul enters the body and whether abortion is wrong. Another two keep arguing about the title of a yoga book. Finally there are moments in Shark Skin Man And Peach Hip Girl during which the world we’re looking at seems completely realistic and believable, but these are juxtaposed with moments in which artifice is all, and abruptly are juxtaposed with moments in which artifice is all, and abruptly we remember we’re immersed in a contrived, unreal, comic-book world. These contrasts and juxtapositions are essential elements in Breathless too.

Ishii has learned from other masters as well. He relies again and again on one of Kurosawa’s signature devices, the medium-distance shot from a stationary camera that shows one or more characters sitting or standing perfectly still against a still background. Like Kurosawa, Ishii draws out the stillness for a few seconds longer than we expect him to, creating an eerie, dreamlike, surrealistic pause in the otherwise brisk pace of the action. These pause shots are balanced, symmetrical, composed, and suffused with rich, painterly colors. Much of the cinematography reveals Ishii’s dedication to art for art’s sake. An extreme closeup of a water droplet pendulously bulging from a faucet serves no other purpose than to be beautiful in and of itself, and the same is true when we see stark black treetops silhouetted against an angry gray sky like a Hokusai woodcut, or the full moon in the night sky, her glow made sickly by the diaphanous blue haze of winter. Ishii’s esthetic sensibilities are equally apparent in the movie’s groovy, energetic soundtrack, with a musical score by Dr. Strangelove and songs ranging from blues to operatic arias. During most of the movie, there is no music, but when the music does hit us, it has a terrific dramatic impact. In every respect Ishii has crafted Shark Skin Man And Peach Hip Girl to give its low delights the sheen of high artistry.

Low delights? You bet. Instead of prattling on about stutter cuts, I probably should have stated at the outset that Shark Skin Man And Peach Hip Girl is a gas, a hoot, a blast, a riot, a rush, a rollicking trip through the zaniest funhouse this side of the sixth dimension. The madcap spirit of the movie manifests itself in the secondary characters, a truly bizarre menagerie of creeps, misfits, sociopaths, psychopaths, perverts, weirdos, eccentrics, freaks, oddballs, and neurologically damaged killer morons. Ladies, if you’re looking for a fun time, consider a date with one of these two charmers:

Mitsuru (Shingo Tsurumi), the son of the gangster boss, has a soft puffy-but-pretty face that’s beautiful in a depraved-Roman-emperor sort of way. To accentuate his bleached blond hair, Mitsuru wears a bulletproof white leather jumpsuit with a white fur collar, off-white leather gloves, and off-white leather boots. The lenses of his sunglasses are dark, but the frame is made of white metal. Mitsuru’s special talent is his bloodhound nose. When the gang is tracking Samehada through the woods, Mitsuru drops down on all fours and scrambles ahead, sniffing at rocks and grass and patches of lichen. When he picks up the odor of his prey, his eyes widen and sparkle with a sadistic gleam, his plump lips part, and his tongue slithers out in a fashion that can only be described as reptilian. In an earlier scene, as the gang closes in on the mountain hideout where Samehada’s innocent young companion Toshiko (Sie Kohinata) has just taken a shower, the boss asks his son, “Smell anything?” Mitsuru steps forward and sniffs the air. He smiles. His facial expression, always arrogant and sneering, suddenly glows with cruelty. “Sure do,” he says. “Shampoo, rinse, and a woman on the rag.” A few minutes later, when his father’s chauffeur is shot through the head, Mitsuru bends over, studies the bullet hole in middle of the corpse’s forehead, and snickers with glee.

Mitsuru’s not quite your type? Then try Yamada on for size.

Yamada (Tatsuya Gasyuin) is a gay amateur hit-man who falls in love with the man he’s hired to kill. Yamada is the smallest person in the entire movie – tiny, painfully shy, and socially awkward. His hair is jet black, but his face looks old and pinched and deeply creased with anxiety. He speaks in a whiny, high-pitched, childish voice. You can tell he’s been picked on and taunted all his life. Over a tacky longsleeved shirt with an abstract black-and-gray design printed on it, Yamada wears a sleeveless cream-and-red sweater emblazoned with a heart, a spade, a club, and a diamond. The sweater is tucked into a pair of jeans three sizes too large, with the belt cinched tightly high above his waist. The jeans have a customized denim holster sewn where the side pocket normally would be, and in it Yamada carries a huge pistol that gives the impression of being half as big as he is. The boxy two-tone sedan he rides around in may well be the dorkiest car in all of Japan. Some people pimp their rides. Yamada has technogeeked his. The dashboard is covered with radio equipment and eavesdropping devices, and the roof bristles with antennae.

Yamada has frequent nosebleeds. After one of his nosebleeds, he tamps the flow with a wad of tissue, then carefully trims and unfolds the tissue into a gore-soaked mess that he gazes at lovingly, as though he has just created an origami flower. He spins around and tries to wipe some of the blood on the face of his employer, whom he hates. He giggles nervously and incessantly. With an abrupt, violent movement, he spins around again and grabs at his employer’s crotch as though trying to injure him. Next Yamada screams, “Bastard! Bastard! Bastard!” He arches his back and somehow cracks his spine the way ordinary people crack their knuckles. That horrible crunching sound will linger in my memory for years to come.

In a later scene that takes place in the men’s room at a rest stop, two young guys shake their heads at Yamada, and one of them calls him a retard. With a marvelously deft hip-wriggling move, Yamada fires his pistol without pulling it from his holster, shooting the punk in the foot. It’s hard to explain how exquisite this little move is, but if you can imagine how Hopalong Cassidy would do it if Hopalong Cassidy were actually Charlie Chaplin, you’ll be in the ballpark.

At least a dozen other secondary characters are just as colorful and memorable, if not quite as strange. But then we have to consider the main characters. Even though they’re wonderfully good-looking and likeable, even though the chemistry between them crackles with barely suppressed sexual energy, Samehada and Toshiko have boring personalities compared to the secondary characters. This is a minor flaw in one of the most entertaining movies I’ve ever seen. Hunt down a copy of Shark Skin Man And Peach Hip Girl and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed!