Film | Wide Angle

'Re:Born': 'Tak' Sakaguchi is back for some major action

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Movie fight scenes, even ones that are acted by martial arts experts, rarely duplicate what actually transpires on a street or battlefield. After all, they’re performed for entertainment, not as actual matters of life or death.

And yet, surrounded by the cast members of Yuji Shimomura’s hard-core action flick “Re:Born” at a screening in Tokyo, I felt as though I had wandered into a gathering of an elite fighting unit. These were folks who looked ready to kick ass — which reminded me of the fact that the film’s PR guy knows where I live.

Shimomura and lead actor Taku “Tak” Sakaguchi, a genre staple since his starring role in the cult hit “Versus” (2001), are hoping to bring a new kind of action to the screen. Their inspiration for the many fight scenes (“kill scenes” may be the better term for them) are the so-called zero-range combat tactics developed by Yoshitaka Inagawa, the film’s fight choreographer. Using short blades instead of traditional Japanese swords, zero-range fighters eliminate opponents as efficiently and fatally as possible at close range.

Run Time 106 mins
Opens Aug. 12

On-screen the effect is like watching a magic act, as the impassive hero dispatches foes with the blur of a blade, in wave-like motions that begin from his ominously rippling back.

That hero is Toshiro Kuroda (Sakaguchi), a former Japan Self-Defense Forces special unit warrior who is now working as a convenience store clerk in the countryside. A silent type, Kuroda is caring for a young girl named Sachi (Yura Kondo) and otherwise living a peaceful life.

His idyllic existence soon ends when a mysterious character known as The Phantom (Akio Otsuka) arrives in town with his minions to assassinate Kuroda. His crime? In a JSDF training exercise he supposedly wiped out a unit under the Phantom’s command, and the sole survivor is now back to get revenge. Instead of running for his life, with Sachi in tow, Kuroda coolly prepares for a one-against-many battle royale.

In a program statement Shimomura says the film “may look like a military action film” but the hero “fights in the present for the future and for hope.” Despite this feel-good disclaimer, “Re:Born” has a sky-high body count, with Kuroda accounting for the bulk of the slaughter, including one brawl in a forest that recalls similar woodsy action in “Versus.”

Coming out of a brief retirement of sorts, the 42-year-old Sakaguchi is still a convincingly lethal presence, pawing the air like a wary cat and striking like a deadly snake. But his poker face and his repetitive fights (most of which are over in the time it takes to sneeze) induce a certain ennui until Kuroda is finally faced with an opponent who is perhaps his master.

The plot, like one out of a video game in which you face a series of bosses, is slight and attempts by scriptwriter Benio Saeki to flesh it out feel forced. Nonetheless, “Re:Born” is odd and striking in equal measure, with Sakaguchi as Kuroda similar in intensity and lethality to such Asian stars as Tony Jaa (“Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior,” 2003) and Iko Uwais (“The Raid: Redemption,” 2011) .

It’s true, “pure” action films are no longer in box-office favor in Japan and Sakaguchi is no longer in his action prime, but the title “Re:Born” may prove prophetic for both its genre and its star’s career.

And if it doesn’t, he could always fatten his bank account with a series of zero-range combat exercise videos.

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