Saturday, 17 March 2018

RE:BORN (2016)

Back in the year 2000, Tak Sakaguchi became a notable new star of Asian cinema thanks to a vibrant, low-budget zombie-Sci-Fi-action-gore flick called Versus, which burst upon an international genre distribution scene that was, at the time, hungry for all things Japanese in origin. Its director, Ryûhei Kitamura, discovered in his good-looking young choice of lead-actor, not only martial arts skills honed by years of street-fighting, but a certain charisma that belied the young performer's lack of experience with acting. His was a magnetic screen presence born of a personality that lit up the screen through elevating his frenetic fight choreography and compelling martial arts moves above an ability to convey emotion or develop a character with more standard acting skills. Fast-forward fifteen years, and Sakaguchi (having in the meantime nurtured a cult following of sufficient magnitude for him now to be able to afford to ditch the last name on his screen credit) has come out of a semi-retirement previously self-imposed so that he might concentrate on his burgeoning career as a director and writer, to team up with his former action coordinator on Versus, Yûji Shimomura, for this stripped-down action flick, appropriately titled Re:Born. Shimomura here assumes the role of director (this is the couple’s second collaboration following on from 2005’s Death Trance) but has also worked with Tak and the film’s other main combat supervisor Yoshitaka Inagawa (who also plays one of Tak’s main antagonists in the movie) to come up with a special new form of close-quarters combat utilising quick-motion knife play, which they call Zero Range Combat. The film is essentially a showcase for this technique, and its lightning-fast moves are deployed from the very first scenes, which take place in an underground bunker where a special-forces unit armed to the hilt with night-vision goggles and machine guns, etc., is, nevertheless, entirely taken down by a single shadowy panther-like presence known as Abyss Walker (Yoshitaka Inagawa): an apparently invulnerable hitman who lurks in hidden corners and appears to harbour the fleet-foot ability to materialise in opposite sections of the same facility moments apart.

As far as plot and character motivation may be of any concern at all in this picture, we don’t get much more of it here than the barest minimum necessary to convey a sense that this is a narrative film rather than merely a collection of action set-pieces and fight scenes strung together. Although Sakaguchi’s co-screenwriter, Benio Saeki, uses Tak’s character Toshiro’s PTSD as an effective device for presenting his intrusive memories of past traumas in the form of tantalising flashes of backstory, these have to be pieced together and interpreted by the viewer over the course of the film and then placed in context alongside Toshiro's personal history, which is explained half-way through by one of his still-loyal surviving comrades, played by Orson Mochizuki. 

At the start of the movie, Toshiro is a blank canvas: a former elite killing machine who has to self-medicate in order to dampen down the violent impulses that still linger in his psyche. Despite the fact that he has given up his former profession to run a convenience store in downtown Tokyo, his instinct for violence is still liable to be re-activated by memories of the harm he has perpetrated during past missions. Many of the faded scars still visible on Toshiro's face and body appear to have been self-inflicted, suggesting a degree of self-harm has also occasionally been enacted as a means of controlling his inner destructive impulses. Tak presents Toshiro as someone who cultivates a calm, placid Zen-like surface that he uses to suppress a steely core he does not want to bring to the surface, unless he is presented with an unavoidably lethal situation -- at which point the old skills snap back into place and the Super Solder operative that has never truly gone away is called upon to fight once again. Toshiro does everything possible, though, to avoid confrontation of this sort in his day-to-day life, knowing the results could be catastrophic if he were, for example, to react violently when his store gets held up by a gang of small-time hoods. When this does, in fact, happen, instead of taking the malefactors down like one would expect him to do, Toshiro serenely hands over all the cash in the till and then replaces the day's take with his own money!

Although Tak Sakaguchi -- now looking considerably older than the fresh-faced youth of Versus, if still very much better than most of us -- is not required to display demonstrable signs of emotion at any point in the movie, and has only minimal dialogue, his character Toshiro is provided with a support network of devoted former comrades and a cute adopted child daughter called Sachi (Yura Kondo) to do the work that is necessary in order to make this otherwise insular character appear sympathetic. Help is provided by the sentimental music cues composer Kenji Kawai provides, particularly during Sachi's scenes with Toshiro. Toshiro's former comrade Kenichi (Takumi Saitoh), permanently injured and facially scarred during the course of saving Toshiro's life on an older mission that occured some years back, continues to receive regular visits from his loyal pal; and the portrayal of Toshiro's devotion to little Sachi certainly helps humanise him, as well as provide the mythical basis for his reputation as the "reborn ghost" -- which is hinted at in the book Sachi is shown reading from throughout the first part of the film, titled The Beginning of the End of the Legend.  

But all of this is merely the set-up for the true business of the movie, which is to present viewers with a set of tense scenarios that can only result in a series of close combat fight scenes that frequently culminate in showers of arterial gore spray emanating at regular intervals from innumerable blade-shredded throats. The motley group of foes and villains Toshiro must combat and overcome over the course of the picture have even less depth and personality than he does, but nonetheless endow events with a certain flamboyant comic-book exuberance otherwise eschewed by the muted tones of Tetsuya Kudô's digital photography, despite the shallow motivation for conflict between these antagonists and Toshiro producing little in the way of the moral ambiguity or divided loyalties that we've recently come to associate with the Marvel or DC Comics universes from their transitions to the cinema screen. 

Toshiro, in his previous life as a combat veteran, was known as "The Ghost", and has, we learn, earned the lasting enmity of his nemesis "The Phantom" (Akio Ôtsuka) and  former partner Abyss Walker, simply for leaving their surrogate family-cum- military unit because of moral concerns he'd acquired, concerning The Phantom's penchant for kidnapping little children and brainwashing them to become agents of international crime and mass genocide! Silent assassin Abyss Walker -- in his black, shroud-like cloak and goggles; and criminal mastermind The Phantom -- puffing on cigars whilst sporting dark glasses that partially mask the vertical scar across the left-hand side of his face -- couldn't look more villainous if they each walked around with placards around their necks proclaiming: 'I am an evil villain'; but some of their underlings are even more deranged and exotic-looking, and include a short-skirted schoolgirl killer and a sword-touting teenage whiz kid.

Toshiro initially effortlessly identifies and dispenses with multitudes of anonymous heavies sent by The Phantom to ambush him by stealth as they emerge from the crowds in the public squares of Tokyo. The fighting style reportedly created for these clashes is actually based around short, sharp fist jabs and quick-fire blocking body stabs rather than the more demonstrably cinematic martial arts moves of many other fight movies. They require additional sound effects and a jagged editing style in order to allow the eye even to fully register their existence. Toshiro's abilities are presented here as though they were equivalent to a superhero's special powers rather than falling within the normal range of a human skill, since he seems to enter a highly focused yet closed-off state of consciousness just before a fight that allows him to move quickly enough to dodge bullets while disposing of half-a-dozen assailants at a time, each one felled with a quick blade slash to the jugular. His weapons also include, at one point, a shovel, as well as the usual collection of lethal knives; and one would-be assassin is dispatched with a chopstick through the throat which Toshiro wipes down afterwards to continue using with his food after the assailant interrupts his meal! The centrepiece of the movie, though, is a forty minute fight scene set in a forest, with two-hundred enemy troops and trained assassins Toshiro and his two pals have to slash, kick and punch through in order to reach the Phantom's military base, where Sachi is being held hostage as a lure to draw "The Ghost" out into the open. It's a kinetic tour de force of bone-crunching, throat-slashing and neck snapping, delivered with convincing aplomb before the inevitable double-stand-off occurs at the climax, first between Toshiro and Abyss Walker and, finally, Toshiro and his old boss The Phantom: a concluding scene that’s played for deliberate Kill Bill-like anti-climactic pathos rather than the expected blood-letting catharsis nurtured by the build up to it. 

In truth, there is little in the concentrated, laser-focused simplicity of this movie that will really surprise or win-over anyone not already persuaded by the silent professionalism of Tak Sakaguchi's particular brand of stoic screen machismo, but this bare-bones dual format release from the UK's Eureka Entertainment label should adequately satisfy his cadre of fans, acting as it does as the ultimate feature-length demonstration piece for his many physical talents, his poise and prowess, and his charismatic screen presence.   

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