Film / Reviews

‘The Gun’: A blast of stylish nihilism

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

Chekhov’s principle about how you can’t introduce a gun in the first act of a story without using it later on might also apply to Toru (Nijiro Murakami).

When the university student impulsively snatches a pistol from a dead body he finds by a riverside in Tokyo, the unfulfilled potential of his new acquisition starts to nag at him. Why have a gun, after all, if you’re not going to shoot it?

“The Gun” is adapted from the 2002 debut by novelist Fuminori Nakamura, but its story will feel familiar to anyone who has read “Crime and Punishment” or the works of Albert Camus and Kobo Abe. While Masaharu Take’s film doesn’t belong in such exalted company, it’s an engrossing portrait of obsession, with a rough, experimental feel that complements, rather than distracts from, the story.

The Gun (Ju)
Rating
Run Time 97 mins.
Language JAPANESE

The murky monochrome visuals, with some occasionally striking camerawork and lighting, could almost be mistaken for something from the 1960s Japanese New Wave. Toru is the kind of character who might have appeared in an early Nagisa Oshima movie: a charismatic, self-absorbed loner, raised by foster parents and with little to keep him morally anchored.

After he comes into possession of the titular revolver, it quickly starts to exert its influence over him. At first, the thought of the gun just gives him more swagger, lending him the confidence to embark on a sexual affair with a woman he meets on a double date (Kyoko Hinami).

After an encounter with a neighborhood cop, he resolves to test his mettle by carrying the weapon around with him, and it’s only a matter of time before he feels tempted to use it. The abusive mother living in the apartment next door seems like an ideal target, but Toru’s budding relationship with fellow student Yuko (Alice Hirose) may offer him a path to redemption first.

“The Gun” isn’t the deepest of character studies, yet Murakami’s intense performance and the film’s stylized aesthetic make it a compulsively watchable one. Working with screenwriter Hideki Shishido, Take preserves the first-person monomania of Nakamura’s book. Murakami is in every scene, smoking furiously and chugging prodigious quantities of canned coffee as his character inches ever closer to the abyss. Even the black-and-white cinematography feels like an extension of Toru’s nihilistic outlook.

Like an existentialist novel, there’s a detached feel to much of what happens. Toru treats the idea of wrongdoing as an intellectual exercise, without fully appreciating the weight of what he’s planning to do. As his grip on reality loosens, the film slips fluidly between fantasy and reality. When a police detective (Lily Franky) tries to bring him back to his senses during a terse meeting at a coffee shop, the scene has the atmosphere of a waking dream.

Granted, Take isn’t quite as adept a stylist as Shinya Tsukamoto, who has done this kind of thing better before, and the visual impact of “The Gun” is marred by some unforgivably weak soundtrack choices. Nevertheless, it sustains an intensity that’s all too rare in contemporary Japanese films, and its closing sequence — featuring a memorable cameo by Murakami’s dad, Jun — isn’t one I’ll be forgetting in any hurry.