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‘Sanbun no Ichi (One Third)’

Life-or-death should be no laughing matter

by Mark Schilling

Caper movies have their conventions, one being that the crook anti-heroes may get to run their fingers through their loot, but they hardly ever get to keep it. The prototype is Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956), in which elaborate planning and clockwork execution pay off in a blackly comic reversal of fortunes, with the paper wealth of Sterling Hayden and his motley gang of thieves flying forever out of reach in the wind.

Something similar seems to be in store for the three partners in crime in “Sanbun no Ichi (One Third),” the third feature by comic/actor/director Hiroshi Shinagawa. Winner of the 2014 Golden Shisa Award, the top competition prize at the recent Okinawa International Movie Festival, this action comedy is inspired less by Kubrick’s taut noir classic, however, than the dialog-heavy, high-body-count films of Quentin Tarantino.

Based on Hanta Kinoshita’s 2012 novel of the same title, “One Third” wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve. The hostess club where much of the action unfolds is called the Honey Bunny — the sobriquet of Amanda Plummer in “Pulp Fiction” — while Tatsuya Fujiwara’s film-buff hero frequently references Tarantino’s oeuvre, as well as various Hollywood thrillers.

The big difference between the American director and his Japanese disciple is that Tarantino, for all his movie-geek borrowings, gripped and shocked the bejabbers out of his audience in such films as “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” Shinagawa, by contrast, strenuously entertains his own with jokey back-and-forth routines reminiscent of manzai (two-man stand-up comedy, in which Shinagawa has his roots), as well as with lovably eccentric characters and too-cute-by-half plot turns.

It’s all rather toothless, ultimately — and as ready for prime time as the mega-hit “Odoru Daisosasen (Bayside Shakedown)” series and other hyperactive, eager-to-please local thrillers.

The story opens in the Honey Bunny with Shu (Fujiwara), its nervous manager, meeting with Koji (Koki Tanaka), a hard-muscled club “boy”(i.e., waiter), and Ken (Ryuichi Kosugi), a portly club regular, to split the take from a ¥200 million bank robbery they have just committed. They initially agree on an equal three-way split, but Shu and Ken soon conspire to reduce Koji’s share to 20 percent, telling him he had less to risk as the getaway driver. (The common-sense method of working out these cuts ahead of time apparently never occurred to this trio.)

Taking exception, the hot-tempered Koji pulls a gun and negotiations resume, with Shu this time offering Koji an 80 percent cut. When he agrees, Ken begins to suspect that Shu and Koji are in cahoots — and out comes his gun. Check and double check.

This sort of scene would ordinarily come later in the film — and conclude with one or more bodies on the floor. In “One Third” it is the preliminary to a long, convoluted version of the ancient American game show “Who Do You Trust?,” with our heroes denied the rational option of eliminating their rivals for the loot.

In the process, we learn that Shu borrowed an enormous sum from a merciless lady loan shark (Shinnosuke Ikehata) to cover for club earnings he stupidly lost, an error his lizard-like boss (Yosuke Kubozuka) will never forgive. Meanwhile, Koji has accumulated gambling debts his puny salary cannot cover and Ken, the owner of a restaurant chain, is on the verge of bankruptcy.

The bank robbery was thus a dangerous solution to their difficult situations. But why does Maria (singer/actress Mika Nakashima), a slinky blond-haired club hostess, seem to know so much about it? Who else is watching, waiting … and plotting?

In answering these and other questions, Shinagawa, who also wrote the script, cleverly keeps the audience guessing. But by piling twist on twist and improbability on improbability, he also takes it further and further away from any known reality, in Hollywood or Japan.

This might not matter much if the object were laughs, not chills. But “One Third” strives for both simultaneously and achieves neither. Kosugi may be a popular tsukkomi (comedy straight man) with the manzai duo Black Mayonnaise, but as Ken, his supposedly comic lines sound more like complaints than quips.

For one thing, he is bouncing most of them off Fujiwara’s grimly earnest Shu. For another, his own character is not a clown but a serious-enough man in life-or-death jeopardy. Gallows humor can be funny, but not if the rope, neck and drop are supposed to be real.

Here is the strange thing: I laughed at parts of “Pulp Fiction” — whose characters were also in various sorts of danger — until the tears rolled down my cheeks. But Honey Bunny and Pumpkin weren’t trying to do thrust-and-parry manzai routines with guns pointed at their heads. Shinagawa should keep his comic flavors straight: Soy sauce goes great with sushi, but not with a Royale with Cheese.