In Japanese films, a lot of what used to be considered extreme is now routine. Geysers of blood and flying body parts may still thrill fanboys, but to me that sort of play violence has become about as exciting as the spin cycle.
Hideo Sakaki’s buddy movie “Alley Cat” also deals in violence, but of the kind that has real consequences on actual bodies and psyches. The ex-boxer hero (Yosuke Kubozuka) does not bounce up from brutal punishment, ready for more. Instead he suffers from headaches that nearly kill him — and maybe someday will.
Actor and director Sakaki has had his share of hard knocks as well, including the near-cancellation of his 2010 comedy “The Accidental Kidnapper” when a cast member was arrested for drugs. (Sakaki saved the day by reshooting the busted actor’s scenes with himself in the role.) All that and more is reflected in “Alley Cat,” whose desperate characters look worn down by life, if not yet defeated by it.
Superb in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” Yosuke Kubozuka plays the boxer, whose cat Maru goes missing as the film begins. Soon after, he finds her in the arms of a blond-haired punk (Kenji Furuya) who calls her Lily and refuses to give her up. Before he can reclaim his cat, the boxer receives a call asking him to serve as a bodyguard. The client, Saeko Tsuchiya (Yui Ichikawa), wants protection when she meets her stalker ex-boyfriend (Hiroshi Shinagawa).
The meeting ends in disaster, but the punk (actually an auto mechanic) helps our hero save Saeko from her crazy ex. Sarcastically calling each other Maru (the boxer) and Lily (the mechanic), these two reluctantly unite to protect Saeko and her small son, Hayato. It’s not enough for Saeko, however, and she winds up heading to Tokyo to seek help from a dubious underworld fixer (Masaki Miura) with her protectors. This temp job has turned into a life-or-death mission.
A buddy movie is comic by definition and “Alley Cat” — which had its North American premiere at this month’s Japan Cuts festival in New York — has fun with its central pair, beginning with their mutual fondness for felines. But even the lighter gags have a dark edge, born of Maru and Lily’s hardscrabble lives. When they arrive in Tokyo, the film goes full noir but leaves out the typical macho romanticism.
Faced with not only the implacable stalker and the slithery fixer, but also a powerful politician (Yuya Takagawa) with a murderous grudge, Maru and Lily are over their heads — and they know it. When they risk their necks, they behave like ordinary mortals for whom a narrow escape is an adrenaline rush, and a gunshot is a genuinely traumatic shock.
Watching the film’s action scenes unfold I often felt like I was watching something I had never seen before, specifically the true-to-life depictions of such out-of-the-ordinary events. Familiar thriller tropes eventually appear, but the film stays faithful to the lived humanity of its three principals, flaws and all.
The rail-thin Kubozuka may not have a boxer’s physique, but he thoroughly fleshes out Maru’s pain, shame, fear and stubborn will to live. As Lily, Dragon Ash frontman Furuya has the look and attitude of a punk who comes from the streets, not a trendy men’s magazine. And as Saeko, Ichikawa successfully transcends the cliches of her in-jeopardy, fallen-woman character.
And Maru/Lily? Not to worry — she’s an alley cat, the grittiest of them all.