Sometimes as a reviewer of Japanese films I feel I am on the wrong side of the cultural divide, with no way to bridge the gap.
Such a disconnect struck as I watched Junji Sakamoto’s “Jinrui Shikin (Human Trust),” a thriller based on a four-volume “economics suspense” novel by Harutoshi Fukui. I am not bored by the subject itself — I even thought of majoring in economics in college (the math dissuaded me).
What stymied me was the film’s form of didacticism-as-entertainment, with characters delivering mini-treatises derived from Fukui’s tome. Imagine Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” rewritten to make Gordon Gecko, the film’s piratical stock trader, sound like a garrulous department head expounding on the mysteries of finance to a grimly attentive subordinate.
A lot of folks here, I know, revel in this sort of thing, as shown by the lasting popularity of “business fiction,” a genre little known in the West, unless you count all those John Grisham novels about lawyers.
Some explanation, I also realize, is unavoidable if viewers are to make sense of the convoluted story, which revolves around the M-Fund. Said to originate from the enormous pile of loot the Japanese Army extracted from its Asian conquests in World War II and secretively managed after Japan’s defeat by the American conquerors and their Japanese allies, the fund supposedly underwrote the country’s postwar recovery.
Though the M-Fund may be more fiction than fact, it could make for a gripping thriller. But that, unfortunately, is not the film delivered by Sakamoto, whose recent work includes a disturbing expose of the child sex trade in Thailand (“Yami no Kodomotachi [Children of the Dark],” 2008) and an earnest melodrama about a disgraced teacher in Hokkaido (“Kita no Kanariatachi [A Chorus of Angels],” 2012).
The film begins in 1945 with an officer of the defeated Imperial Army ordering his men to dump 600 tons of gold into Tokyo Bay — the birth of the M-Fund.
The scene shifts to 2014 as con-man Yuichi Mafune (Koichi Sato) and a gangster associate (Susumu Terajima) try to persuade two marks that they have a pipeline to M-Fund money. The police rudely interrupt, but rather puzzlingly let Mafune go free. Soon after, he encounters a tightly wound stranger (Mirai Moriyama), who tells him the “foundation” wishes to see him.
Realizing that the stranger, one Yuki Seki, may know something about the real M-Fund, Mafune agrees to a meeting. First, though, he and Seki must elude a gang of mysterious pursuers whose kick-ass female leader (Arisa Mizuki) will loom large in their subsequent escapades.
Finally they meet Honjo (Ittoku Kishibe), a foundation executive who offers Mafune the craziest job of his long, checkered career: steal M-Fund money to the tune of ¥10 trillion, for a commission of ¥5 billion.
Instead of suspecting a scam, Mafune signs on to the foundation’s mission of rescuing the M-Fund from the nefarious characters who now manipulate it — and dedicating the dough to an unexplained higher purpose. For ¥5 billion, wouldn’t you?
The ensuing intrigues and adventures unfold in Siberia, Thailand (masquerading as the fictional country Capela) and finally the United Nations — all actual locations, introduced through ingenious shots that move from specific characters to exhilaratingly sweeping views.
The action, however, is on the slow and hard-to-swallow side, especially after we learn that Mafune’s main adversary is a New York money man played by Vincent Gallo. Best known for his roles as edgy outsiders (Billy in “Buffalo ’66″ being the best-known example), the wild-eyed Gallo makes for a bizarre Wall Street master of the universe. It’s somewhat like casting Dennis Hopper at his twitchiest as a U.S. president. (Congressman, perhaps; president, no.)
Even stranger is the climax, which features a lengthy speech that makes Charlie Chaplin’s famous peroration in “The Great Dictator” seem like a model of compression and restraint. Chaplin at least had the excuse of railing against Nazism. Sakamoto and Fukui are simply guilty of equating real-world politics with high school speech contests.
As the movie dissolved before my eyes into absurdity, I began to reflect that this was a major commercial release, seven years in the making. What could the producers have been thinking? Their colleagues in Hollywood would have read “box-office disaster” in the first draft. But their Japanese counterparts no doubt had the sales numbers from Fukui’s past best-sellers dancing in their heads, leaving no room for outsider objections. Some bridges are easy to imagine, impossible to build.
Fun fact: “The whole (M-Fund) thing is a can of worms,” wrote Gillian Tett in the Financial Times. “The U.S. could clear this up, but they’ve refused to declassify a whole bunch of documents from the ’50s and ’60s.”