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  • Benjamin May

Hagoku (2017) Review

Based on the novel of the same name by Akira Yoshimura and set during the tail end of WWII, this made for TV movie finds Takeshi Kitano starring as Warden Susumu Urata, a decent man working within an indecent system. He engages in a lengthy battle of wills with prisoner Seitaro Sakuma, a man for whom escape is second nature. Over the years, the two come to respect each other, but Seitaro's continual escape attempts, as well as Urata's capabilities for punishment, put strain on the relationship.

Kitano is on top form as Warden Urata, ever reserved and bearing an air of melancholy, he is a man of honour and dedication whose morals are tested by the behaviour of Seitaro, and the actions he must take in response to him. The year this was first shown, 2017, also saw the release of 'Outrage Coda', the final chapter in his celebrated Yakuza trilogy, and Kitano plays two markedly different characters in the respective films.

They are almost polar opposites, linked only by their unwavering resolve and by the intelligence and determination of Kitano's performance. Urata may not be the most interesting character he has ever played, but there is enough there for him to work with; and he creates something- and someone- worth spending time watching. (As an aside, fans of Kitano's oeuvre will no doubt take immeasurable pleasure in seeing he and Susumu Terajima back together on screen, albeit briefly).

Takayuki Yamada stars as Seitaro, and brings an intensity to the role that is most intriguing. When he says that he scaled the wall of one of his cells "like a lizard," and that he will surely do it again, the madness in his eyes assures you that he means business. At the same time, this is someone who alleges to be unjustly imprisoned, and Yamada instils in the character much sympathy, complexity and depth.

The escape sequences are all well-handled, with the Abashiri prison break being a particular highlight; though it is nothing we haven't seen before in film (and done with more aplomb and originality). The scenes of punishment are hard hitting for a made for TV movie and, despite being in no way gratuitous or ultra-violent, they carry emotional weight and power, and are each and all routinely well-acted.

The film clearly has high production values, as the cast all perform admirably, the cinematography is rich and crisp, and everything on screen looks both expensive and period accurate. It is a bit of a shame then, that the dialogue and narrative structure is so unimpressively average.

The plot unfolds in a generic and linear fashion, and narration by Urata's daughter throughout comes across as a cheap way of filling gaps in the timeframe and storyline. Dramatic moments are overblown to the point of melodrama (such as a flashback involving Urata's daughter and a fire, or the scenes involving Seitaro's wife); lacking any real power.

Too often the dialogue is overladen with information, so that some characters sound like they're composing an exegesis rather than conversing naturally. Outside of Urata and Seitaro, there is little character development, so that a parade of supporting players become little more than dimly defined background noise in the grand scheme of things. This means that the abilities of talented actors like Yutaka Matsushige, as well as the aforementioned Susumu Terajima, are nearly completely wasted.

Having said all that, this is an entertaining made for TV movie and a worthy adaptation of Yoshimura's work; even if the narrative power is slightly truncated by a focus on exposition rather than on character development. Kitano and Yamada turn in strong performances, and while it isn't the best prison break movie you're ever likely to see; there is enough good in 'Hagoku' that a viewing is recommended.


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