In a country where firearms are standard issue for police officers but strictly regulated for everyone else, such weapons exert a strange fascination.

In Masaharu Take’s “The Gun” (2018), a nihilistic university student slowly succumbs to the allure of violence after coming into possession of an illicit weapon. Adapted from the debut novel by Fuminori Nakamura, it’s an effective existentialist noir, much like Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Bullet Ballet” if the main character had stayed at home reading Albert Camus instead of cavorting with gangsters.

This unexpected follow-up — based on an original script by Nakamura, and with Take back at the helm — revisits the story with a female protagonist, and a less intellectual bent. More of a companion piece than a sequel, “The Gun 2020” has the makings of a feminist exploitation thriller, but the end result is as murky as the visuals.

The Gun 2020 (Ju 2020)
Run Time 76 min.
Language Japanese
Opens July 10

In what feels like a feature-length apology from the producers, the lead character is played by “The Gun” costar Kyooko Hinami, whose role in the previous film required a lot of nudity and little else. She’s given more to work with this time, though the potential suggested by the movie’s central gender swap remains largely unfulfilled.

Hinami’s character, Toko, has plenty of reasons to be mad at the world. Scarred by childhood neglect, she lives alone in a trash-strewn apartment where the utilities have been cut off, and is hounded by a landlord who suggests receiving sexual favors in lieu of rent. Her experiences with other men aren’t much better, while her mentally unstable mother isn’t exactly generous in her affections.

In the opening sequence, Toko escapes from a stalker (Masaya Kato) by ducking into a red-light district building, where she discovers a gun abandoned in a washroom basin. A natural hoarder, she brings it home; as she writes in her diary: “I took it because it seemed to be unhappy.”

Much like Nijiro Murakami’s protagonist in the earlier film (who makes a brief cameo here), the weapon soon takes hold of her. An early scene of canoodling with her new acquisition suggests that the relationship is going to veer into the kind of sexualized techno-fetishism you’d associate with David Cronenberg, but the film later opts for something closer to demonic possession.

When Toko returns to the building where she found the firearm, she’s accosted by a brutish bar owner (Koichi Sato), who informs her that its previous owner was a sex worker who was murdered before she could use it to exact her revenge on those who wronged her. Consumed by this knowledge, Toko finds herself compelled to complete the revolver’s unfinished business.

Generations of psychoanalysts have noted the phallic symbolism of guns, but Take and Nakamura don’t seem particularly interested in exploring how the power dynamic changes when the weapon is placed in a woman’s hands.

Like Take’s earlier “100 Yen Love,” “The Gun 2020” also makes some questionable tonal decisions. Toko’s encounters with her stalker, and a slobbering pedophile seen in a childhood flashback, are treated in a jokey fashion that sits uncomfortably with the subject matter.

Yet it’s the film’s timid accounting of sexual politics that’s the biggest disappointment. An angel of vengeance without the agency, Hinami’s trigger-happy heroine doesn’t nudge the dial any further than Meiko Kaji did in the “Female Prisoner Scorpion” series nearly five decades ago. 2020? “The Gun 1970” might have been more appropriate.

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