Katsuhito Ishii was an early avatar of Japanese quirk, making films that celebrated the wilder, goofier side of the local pop culture while flouting the conventions of commercial cinema, including at least a veneer of sanity.
After a successful stint directing TV advertisements, Ishii made his feature debut in 1998 with the frantic, stylish chase movie “Samehada Otoko to Momojiri Onna (Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl).” Screened at the Hawaii International Film Festival, it inspired HIFF guest Quentin Tarantino to schmooze with Ishii at a Honolulu coffee shop — and later engage him to supervise animated sequences for “Kill Bill: Vol. 1.”
This endorsement from the then-reigning king of cool helped launch Ishii abroad: His live-action followups, “Cha no Aji (The Taste of Tea)” in 2004 and “Naisu no Mori: The First Contact (Funky Forest: The First Contact)” in 2005, screened widely abroad. In 2008 he directed a shot-by-shot remake of the 1938 Hiroshi Shizimu classic “Anma to Onna (The Masseurs and a Woman),” retitling it “Yama no Anata — Tokuichi no Koi (My Darling of the Mountains).”
His latest, “Sumagura (Smuggler),” is based on a manga by Shohei Manabe but plays like a reworking and updating of “Sharkskin,” from its frenetic, propulsive story, again set in the underworld of Ishii’s fertile imagination, to the appearances of “Sharkskin” cast members Susumu Terajima and Tatsuya Gashuin.
The main difference is that where “Sharkskin” was loopy, surfacey fun, “Smuggler” delivers torture-horror jolts reminiscent of the “Saw” films. Queasy stomachs had better go elsewhere.
At the same time, “Smuggler” pays knowing tribute to such gritty noir classics as “They Drive by Night” (1940) and “The Wages of Fear” (1953), whose trucker heroes were desperate men on the road to hell or, just maybe, salvation. This movie’s breakneck pace, pounding rhythm and simple, one-thing-after-another structure are more Ramones than Raoul Walsh, however.
Ishii’s hero is Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a failed actor whose addiction to pachisuro (a pachinkolike gambling game) gets him into debt with Chinese gangsters. His creditors introduce him to an agency, run by a hard-nosed businesswoman into Gothic Lolita fashions (Yasuko Matsuyuki), that transports contraband and pays high under-the-table wages. That is, the gangsters intend to fatten the cow before they milk it. Soon after, Kinuta is in a truck with phlegmatic driver Joe (Masatoshi Nagase) and his excitable elderly sidekick, Jiji (Tatsuya Gashuin), en route to a pickup.
Meanwhile, two Chinese hit men, nicknamed Sebone (Backbone; Masanobu Ando) and Naizo (Guts; Ryushin Tei), invade the headquarters of a yakuza gang, where they proceed to kill the boss (Yohachi Shimada) and his underlings with contemptuous ease. The truckers now have their cargo.
This, of course, is not yet mission accomplished. The boss’ icy young widow (Hikari Mitsushima) and former minions go on the hunt for the hit men, while the truckers run into various obstacles, beginning with two nosy cops (Ren Osugi and Shota Matsuda), that call on all of Kinuta’s acting skills to overcome. When the curtain finally rises on the third act, he is forced to give the performance of his life.
Ishii’s dry sense of humor is on full display in “Smuggler,” as is his manga- and anime-influenced visual style, which turns characters such as Sebone, with his flamelike scars, bleached hair and martial-arts superpowers, into living cartoons. The Ishii that his foreign fans know and love, in other words, is still alive and well.
But “Smuggler” also has a hard, straight edge, as embodied by Nagase’s wised-up trucker and Mitsushima’s take-charge widow, who trust nothing but their own instincts for survival in an unforgiving world.
Far more extreme is Kinuta’s 180-degree transformation from a weepy, indecisive wimp to a man drawing on resources he never knew he had, for tests no human being ought to endure. Tsumabuki may not be a tough-guy icon, but his performance as Kinuta is surprisingly cathartic, despite his hard-to-watch degradation at the hands of his tormentors. I didn’t walk out of the theater swaggering, but I did gain a new appreciation for the limits of human endurance.
Tarantino had better slide over in the booth for Japan’s new king of vicious cool. Though knowing Ishii’s own penchant for 180-degree turns, his next film may well be as violent as a stroll in the park — or the funky forest.