Takashi Miike has hit the director career sweet spot, being both feted at major festivals abroad and scoring at the box office at home, often with the same film. (Hollywood directors, by contrast, typically get more industry cred for a big opening weekend than a Cannes invitation.) Still, this onetime king of the straight-to-video cult shocker continues to push boundaries, showing in the 2012 parody musical “Ai to Makoto (For Love’s Sake)” and the somber 2011 samurai drama “Ichimei (Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai)” that he can conquer — or rather Miike-ize — any genre.
Miike’s latest, “Wara no Tate (Shield of Straw),” is his attempt to make a thriller on a Hollywood scale, complete with spectacular stunts, panicking crowds and hairbreadth escapes against impossible odds. Seeing the trailer, which assembles the best action bits into one eye-popping, adrenalin-pumping rush, it’s hard to believe that the same director once got his biggest effects with ridiculously cheap means, as in the notorious foot-sawing sequence of 1999′s “Odishon (Audition),” whose big shock was delivered by a common tool found in many homes, those of psychotics included.
But fans will recognize Miike’s characteristic affinity for extremes in “Shield of Straw.” A high-concept entertainment of a type beloved by the local industry, with a hyped-to-the-max plot that features death-defying heroics, the film pushes beyond its own cliches to an existential knife’s edge where the cop hero (Takao Osawa) is tested to the moral core of his being. And he is not the only one: The film is more notable for its high number of emotional meltdowns than its cars crashed and bullets fired.
It’s as though Miike, notorious for his black comic violence, has decided to show how totally, even hysterically, serious he can be. So no cultish winks and grins at the over-the-top melodramatics, inspired by Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s best seller. And no uncomplicated thrill ride, as promised by the trailer. Instead, “Shield of Straw” is a human drama with all stops out.
It begins with the cruel murder of a young girl (thankfully suggested rather than shown), followed by an offer by the girl’s wealthy, powerful grandfather (Tsutomu Yamazaki) of ¥1 billion to anyone who kills the prime suspect, a convicted child rapist and murderer recently released from prison. Realizing he is a dead man walking, the suspect, Kunihide Kiyomaru (Tatsuya Fujiwara), turns himself in to the police in Fukuoka.
Five elite cops are assigned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department to escort Kiyomaru back to Tokyo for his trial. The leader is the quiet, even-tempered Kazuki Mekari (Osawa), assisted by tough-as-nails, by-the-book police sergeant Atsuko Shiraiwa (Nanako Matsushima). Their team is immediately thrown into a volatile maelstrom of suspicion and fear.
Who can they really trust, both among themselves and the brother cops who are supposedly protecting them? And who would regret the death of a sneering, unrepentant piece of human trash destined for the noose? Why not let human nature take its course — and reap a rich reward?
As Mekari, Shiraiwa and the rest mull these questions, they and their handcuffed charge are being tracked everywhere they go, with the whole of the Internet looking on. Soon the attacks begin by reward seekers as implacable as Terminators. The doughty quintet will have to run a 1,200 km gauntlet, with 100 million hands raised against them.
This may sound like a terrific concept for a thriller, playing as it does on the basic human desires for easy money and grisly vengeance. But it’s also simplistic, since the killer(s) of Kiyomaru will only be able enjoy their reward if they can spend it undisturbed, unlikely given the unfortunate laws against murder in the name of vigilante justice.
Rather than address this problem, Miike cleverly sidesteps it to focus instead on Mekari’s dilemma as a cop and a man: While wanting to do his duty, he can’t help loathing his charge, who has been both a cause and a perpetrator of murder.
As Mekari, Osawa brings an ordinary, conflicted humanity to a role that many would play as a jut-jawed cartoon. Like nearly everyone in the main cast, however, he is asked to blow at least one too many gaskets, with veins bulging and spittle flying. But is equanimity really an option when every other passenger on a crowded Shinkansen (actually a high-speed train in Taiwan) is your potential enemy?
To quote “Catch 22″: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.
Fun fact: Takashi Miike lefthandly praised Tatsuya Fujiwara, who has made a specialty of playing dodgy characters: “In a completely creepy role, he is the biggest creep in Japan. His performance is incredible.”