Posted by Ian Mantgani on 15th October, 2012
The Samurai That Night opens with a fractured timeframe, crosscutting Ken (Masato Sakai) listening to a voicemail from his wife Hisako (Maki Sakai) with footage of said wife being killed in a brutal hit-and-run. Soon we learn that this isn’t happening on the same day but in fact five years have passed, and Ken is just a trembling wreck playing that voicemail over and over.
It grabs us immediately – the disorientation of tragedy, how it makes certain memories keep repeating, how our lives sometimes get stuck in an emotional catalogue rather than a real-world timeline. As the movie uses the past to arrest our attention, so too it does with a countdown to the future: The cold-hearted punk killer, Kijima (Takayuki Yamada), is getting daily letters announcing, “In X days I will kill you, then kill myself.”
Written and directed by Masaaki Akahori, adapted from his own play, The Samurai That Night indeed has a lot to involve us. The haunted performance of Masato Sakai, who plays a quivering freak of a bereaved man. The dead-eyed villain of Yamada, whose shameless brutish taking and bullying offends us but who is nevertheless at heart a pussy (hiding indoors, fearing for his life on the zero-day the letters have been promising, his final wish is for someone to go rent him a DVD of Titanic.) Shot in murky, often day-lit low-speed 35mm, the film’s retro tech recollects the look of films that helped Asian crime and action cinema explode to worldwide popularity in the 1980s. There are nifty shots, like when Ken visits a call girl but has trouble getting her into bed – at one moment we can see her in sexy lingerie, then as she babbles on about her life she leans forward, and shadows cover all her sex organs, the visuals winking at Ken’s unlikelihood of getting lucky.
There are also bits that don’t quite add up. Bad-guy Kijima is on a mission to bully and harangue all his work colleagues not to spill the beans about the woman he killed with his van, and yet Ken and all his friends seem to know the identity of the killer. Is it public knowledge, or not? Further, the dead woman’s brother seems to know Kijima personally – is this the film giving us its small, intimate view of the world, to create a sense of destiny and claustrophobia, or is it just muddled, convenient writing? We can forgive these things as The Samurai That Night progresses emotionally, tensely to its conclusion, but ultimately it just fizzles out. The ending of the picture refuses to give us any easy release or crazy twists, but although it’s trying to do something different with the usual trajectory of the revenge genre, it doesn’t do anything more satisfying.