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  • Benjamin May

Gonin (1995) Review

Mikihiko Bandai is a disco owner whose business has been severely affected by the economic downturn. He is in massive debt to the Yakuza, and has no way to pay them back. After a scuffle in his disco, Bandai decides to rob the Yakuza, enlisting the help of an ex-cop, a gay hustler, an unhinged salaryman and a Thai pimp. The five pull off the robbery, but in a most frantic and unprofessional fashion, and the Yakuza subsequently hire a couple of deranged sadomasochistic hitmen to track down and take out the thieves. So begins a game of cat and mouse, where Bandai and his crew struggle to stay ahead of impending death, in Takashi Ishii's 'Gonin.'

A corker of a crime film, 'Gonin' is an unpredictable and entertaining trip across Tokyo in the company of wild and crazy fellows that one will find hard to forget. Written and directed by Ishii, his tale is full of unexpected moments and biting, pulpy dialogue, as well as featuring brilliantly realized, distinctive characters and a fantastic ending. The heist sequence is thrilling, while the ensuing hunt is one full of tension and suspense. The film also examines the nature of homosexual relationships with particular regard to power dynamics, and how these can be both healthy and unhealthy, while still containing genuine affection among those involved.

To expand upon that point further, there are two sets of homosexual couples in the film, one of which is based upon affection and respect, the other of which is based on sadomasochism and violence. While Ishii clearly makes the healthiness of these relationships distinct from one another, both are based on love and a deep need for connection. Though perhaps a somewhat cursory investigation, Ishii's exploration of homosexuality in all its' forms is most interesting, giving the film another dimension for viewers to ponder.

'Gonin' features arresting cinematography from Yasushi Sasakibara, who makes excellent use of light and shadows to reinforce the darkly mysterious tone of the film. His work under Ishii's direction is fitful and evocative of noir, exuding at times a dreamlike quality that makes the irregularity of the narrative all the more potent. Akimasa Kawashima's editing is intuitive and intelligent- no scenes go on too long, nor does the film's determined and frantic pace ever lose momentum. It is a supremely fine picture in visual terms, with much to laud over on the technical side of things.

Additionally, Goro Yasukawa's score is dramatic and stirring, giving to the proceedings a mournful quality that heightens the narrative impact. Alicia Hayes's costume design is also of note, especially her crocodile skin outfits for the gay hustler, which adds both to his characterization and to the depth of the picture's detail. On the whole, 'Gonin' is an achievement on practically every level; and a very memorable one at that.

The film features an ensemble cast, though Koichi Sato is the ostensible star, playing Bandai. He delivers a performance of unwavering certainty and resolve; were this film 'Oceans 11' he would be Frank Sinatra: calm, cool and consistently collected. Masahiro Motoki co-stars as the gay hustler and seriously impresses with his range of emotions and mastery of understatement. The character becomes something of the emotional heart of the film, and Motoki will move any viewer with heart left enough to stir.

Also worth mentioning from the cast are Naoto Takenaka and Takeshi Kitano, playing the unbalanced salaryman and the leader of the hitmen, respectively. Takenaka showcases the madness of his role wonderfully, going rather over-the-top, but not in an offensive way; remaining sympathetic- though utterly insane. Kitano all but steals the show as the sadistic, gay hitman, a role echoing the one he played in his previous 'Boiling Point.' He is terrifying, sometimes a little humorous; and always captivating to watch. Though he has less screen time than Motoki, Sato or Takenaka, Kitano really makes his presence known, dominating the latter half of the movie completely.

A colorful, commendable crime caper, Takashi Ishii's 'Gonin' is a marvelous movie sure to entertain and thrill audiences everywhere. Featuring an original, wild story full of sharp dialogue and well-rounded characters, the film is an unpredictable as it is enjoyable. Boasting strong performances from an ensemble cast, an assured visual style and a fine score from Goro Yasukawa, there is very little not to commend about the picture. If you are a fan of crime fiction, watch 'Gonin;' it shouldn't disappoint.


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