Tale of another vile banker

by Mark Schilling

Japanese live-action films based on manga take various forms, from the silly to the serious, though few are anything like Hollywood comic-book movies, whose superheroes, with their CG-assisted superpowers, are pure wish fulfillment. It’s not that the Japanese films are always less fantastic, but their heroes are usually less formidable. It’s hard, for example, to think of any who can fly minus a mechanical assist.

Hitoshi Iwamoto’s new film “MW” (pronounced “mew”), which is adapted from a 1970s manga of the same title by Osamu Tezuka, takes more inspiration from Hollywood thrillers than superhero epics. But the thrillers it is recycling are the 1990s variety in which a canny madman threatens to loose deadly havoc on scores of innocent victims.

The twist, which it borrows from its source material, is that its villain is also its hero, played by heartthrob Hiroshi Tamaki. This is somewhat like casting Keanu Reeves in the Dennis Hopper role in “Speed” (1994) and making his crafty, amoral character the center of the film.

It’s also timely that “MW’s hero is a banker, now among the most despised professions on the planet, beating out even lawyers and journalists.

Director Hitoshi Iwamoto
Run Time 130 minutes
Language Japanese

This sort of dark hero was a departure for Tezuka, the “god of manga,” who first shot to fame in the 1950s for kiddie comics drawn in a cutesy style influenced by Disney, the best known internationally being “Atom Boy.” Also new to the Tezuka oeuvre was the gay relationship between the hero, Michio Yuki, and a priest, Yutaro Garai, whom he had first befriended when a boy.

Scripted by Tetsuya Oishi and Haruo Kimura, who also wrote the screenplays for the “Death Note” films, “MW” plays down the sexual side of Yuki’s character, while playing up the thriller element to hilt.

It begins with a extended sequence in Bangkok in which a Japanese detective (Ryo Ishibashi) helps the Thai police track a kidnapper who has snatched the dishy daughter of a frantic Japanese businessman.

The kidnapper is Yuki, who makes off with the ransom money in a series of slick maneuvers that baffle the Thai cops. The Japanese detective, however, pursues him through the crowded, traffic-choked streets with a headlong persistence that makes Popeye Doyle’s epic pursuit of the drug kingpin in “The French Connection” look like stroll in the park. (Unfortunately, that 1971 classic has inspired a thousand imitators, each trying to up the fruit-carts-smashed-to-smithereens ante, leaving the chase in “MW” looking less than original.)

Yuki turns out to be, not only smart and slippery, but also a cold-blooded killer. Is he pure evil? As a boy, we learn, he and the aforementioned friend, Garai (Takayuki Yamada), were the only survivors of an attack by unnamed “foreign forces” after the leak of a top-secret poison gas.

The “forces” were ordered to kill all the inhabitants on the tiny island where the gas was stored, to prevent word of its whereabouts from getting out. (In Tezuka’s comic, the “forces” were clear stand-ins for American troops in Okinawa, which had been recently returned to Japan after decades of U.S. rule.)

The incident has poisoned Yuki’s mind and body. He has been drained of normal human emotions, including compassion, but burns for revenge against those responsible for the attack, while knowing that his time is short. How his one-man crusade devolves into a mad attempt to wipe out the human race is the focus of the story.

Yuki contacts Garai, now a priest who regards his former friend and fellow survivor as nothing but trouble. But when Garai susses Yuki’s intentions, he becomes determined to stop him, especially when he learns that Yuki plans to steal the poison gas and unleash who knows what horrors with it. Meanwhile, the detective and an intrepid female reporter (Yuriko Ishida) are hot on Yuki’s trail.

Iwamoto, a veteran TV director, pumps up the action with everything from helicopter attacks inspired by “Apocalypse Now” to miraculous escapes from certain death that would be incredible even in a Bond film. In the screening room, they prompted laughter, in a film otherwise devoid of humor. I left it feeling that, as badly as Hollywood mangles Japanese pop-culture properties — see “Dragonball Evolution” for one recent woebegone example — the Japanese film business doesn’t do much better in recycling Hollywood thriller cliches.

Tamaki, a film and TV drama star since his breakthrough in the sports comedy “Waterboys” (2001), makes for a credible enough villain — beautiful and soulless. But he can’t bring “MW” into the present century. Perhaps instead of poison gas, his character should have loosed a cloud of toxic derivatives on the world. That would have been scary.