Back in the 1990s there was a spate of Japanese movies about alienated young guys who roamed the streets or countryside with a gun, a girl and an attitude. But “Nihonsei Shonen (The Boy Made in Japan)” (1995), “Secret Waltz” (1996) and other films inspired by Hollywood criminal-couples-on-the-road movies seemed to unfold in a fantasy world. This, after all, is Japan, where the closest young rebels come to actual bang-bang action is a fireworks display.
Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s “Freesia (Freesia — Bullet Over Tears),” based on an eponymous manga by Jiro Matsumoto, has most of the abovementioned qualities, including the unreality, but is not, like its predecessors, an exercise in directorial wish-fulfillment. Instead, it takes the more honest course of allegorical, dystopian division.
Set in a near-future Japan where revenge-for-hire has become legally sanctioned — a throwback to the customs of the Edo Period — “Freesia” has an artistic license to kill. Its gunplay is cool enough, with slick moves by both Tetsuji Tamayama, as the affectless hero, and editor Mototaka Kusakabe, whose quick, deft cutting adds impact to otherwise pedestrian action scenes. But the film has more on its mind than its own stylistics, thoroughly realized as they are.
Instead of coming on with the attitude, the film’s three principals carry emotional scars from the past that have left them wary or, in the hero’s case, incapable of ordinary human contact. Outwardly cold, they are inwardly sad, lonely types, and thus representative of urban Japan, circa 2007.
The coldest, by any measure, is the hero, Hiroshi (Tamayama), who 15 years earlier, as a teenage military cadet, helped conduct a bizarre experiment that left nearly 30 children instantly frozen on a snowy hillside. The experience drained him of all emotion, but he remains haunted by the memory of a girl survivor. Though he never saw her again in the flesh after that fateful day, she visits him in his dreams and even in daylight visions.
As the film begins he is starting a job as a hit man, working for a licensed agency that delivers revenge for a fee. The agency, though, is legally required to notify the intended victims, so they can defend themselves.
His employer, the beautiful-but-all-business Higuchi (Tsugumi), sends him out with two other hit men on his first assignment, to kill the proprietor of a ramen shop, whose crime is manslaughter while driving drunk. Unlike his shaky, excitable colleagues, Hiroshi is chillingly professional, pulling the trigger without a flicker of hesitation.
Meanwhile, Toshio (Hidetoshi Nishijima), Hiroshi’s senior in the cadet corps and the conductor of the experiment (though not the one who conceived it), is now working in an auto garage. He is also in retreat from the world, but is still capable of human feelings, including pity and regret.
Hiroshi finally meets his match in a mysterious old guy known only as “The Ghost” (Hiroshi Oguchi), who immediately susses that Hiroshi can no longer feel pain, emotional or physical. A vicious stab wound barely fazes him, though the blood gushes out. Then, after he recovers, Higuchi hands him another assignment: Toshio, whom she has personal reasons for wanting dead. Who is this woman, really — and what is she to Hiroshi? What do they share besides a business relationship? The standard movie answer would be “a love that conquers all,” but Kumakiri takes a harder, less conventional path to his ending. There are, he implies, wounds that never heal, acts that can never be forgiven. Vengeance, though, offers no real solution — or even satisfaction. The hit men and their targets are mostly desperate types, who kill out of self-preservation. At the same time, Hiroshi’s eerie calm expresses, not grace under pressure, but his dehumanization.
Playing Hiroshi, Tamayama looks vaguely Clark Kent-ish (the clean jaw and black-rimmed glasses) and Edward Scissorhands-ish (the retro leather zip jacket and air of being an alien in the human world). As Toshio, Nishijima is the usual loner-with-a-past, though his nervous intensity provides a welcome contrast to Tamayama’s blankness. (Otherwise the movie would sink into a coma.)
Tsugumi’s Higuchi occupies a middle ground, chilled in the same way as Hiroshi, but still able to express normal emotions, however masked. The question, which she rightly refrains from answering to the end, is how much. Enough to save Hiroshi — or just wake him for a moment from his frozen state?
Sounds grim, doesn’t it? Kuma-kiri, who began his career as the maker of the horrifically violent “Kichiku Daienkai (Kichiku: Banquet of the Beasts)” (1998), still has dark corners in his psyche. As he confesses in the program interview, “Freesia” is less a genre job for hire, than another entry in a troubled spiritual journal. But its chill is also the real-world deal, global warming or no. And you don’t need a gun to feel it. Just open those theater doors — baby, it’s cold outside.