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Shinjuku Swan
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by Jay Seaver

"Looking for 'talent', finding trouble."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Like a lot of movies adapted from long-running manga, "Shinjuku Swan" shows a lot of telltale signs of screenwriters Rikiya Mizushima and Osamu Suzuki trying to cram a lot of storylines and fan-favorite characters into a couple hours. It's a process that has torpedoed a lot of movies, but works out all right here in large part because the script is handed off to Sion Sono, who knows a little something about making dense-but-exciting movies with a fair bit of darkness.

He's got his work cut out for him telling the story of Tatsuhiko Shiratori (Gou Ayano), a frizzy-haired loser who, after getting into a brawl with six goons on the streets of Tokyo's red-light district, is recruited by Mr. Mako (Yusuke Iseya). Not to be gangster, but to be a talent scout, looking for pretty girls who can work in the neighborhood's nightclubs, massage parlors, and even more unsavory spots. Of course, even if they're not quite gangsters, the rivalry between the "Burst" agency that employs Mako and the "Harlem" agency the employs Hideyoshi Minami (Takayuki Yamada) and Yutaka Hayama (Nobuaki Kaneko) is still about to explode into a fight that often involves Tatsuhiko getting the crap kicked out of him.

By focusing on Tatsuhiko, the filmmakers often seem to be seriously downplaying the fact that he and his colleagues are in the business of exploiting women in every way possible, with Tatsuhiko being a cheerful, friendly face for the argument that prostitution and related activities aren't so bad so long as it's handled with care. That's the spoken case made, although I don't think there's any missing that a lot of these girls are not having their interests seen to, with pretty horrible results. So what to make of Tatsuhiko, who gets down about this but is always assured that he does more good than harm? That's kind of what makes the movie interesting, because Ayano does a pretty nice job of making him a guy who really needs to believe that he's doing the right thing and is probably eventually able to do a good job of convincing himself that this is the case. Ayano plays Tatsuhiko as somewhat naive, but his optimism tends to be draw smiles more than sneers, with the moments where he briefly seems to grasp that he's involved in a business that chews people up seeming genuine and appealing even if ephemeral.

It's a quality that few of his co-stars exhibit, by design. Yusuke Iseya has a certain charisma as Mako (as his name appears in the subtitles, though most sites list his name as "Matora"), enough to give Tatsuhiko and even the audience the impression that he's fond of the young man and invested in him, but Iseya also delivers a casual, dangerous ruthlessness. Yu Yamada's Ryoko - one of the few women in the film who actually enjoys the self-determination that the scouts use as a selling point, as she runs a hostess club rather rather than working the floor - seems nicer, although in large part because she doesn't sneer. Takayuki Yamada is given a part that he kind of has to bluster through as Minami, but he plays excitable/dumb/probably not horrible at heart part well. Erika Sawajiri, meanwhile, plays one of the women with a tragic arc impressively.

Because the more ruthless people around Tatsuhiko don't share his altruistic bent, he's both easy for them to manipulate and hard for them to predict. As rivals attempt to outflank each other, Sono does a pretty terrific job of getting a rapid back-and-forth conflict across without boring the audience with excessive details or getting away from Tatsuhiko, for whom a lot of this is over his head (until falling on it). The filmmakers seem to have compacted a number of story arcs into one 139-minute movie, and some situations aren't explained quite so well as they could be, but the story never seems to stop, change direction, and restart; there's a smooth sort of overlap in the threads that keeps it moving.

That's a Sono specialty which he manages even in this rare movie where he works from a screenplay written by others. Though it spends almost all of its time in areas that are pretty ethically murky - there's barely been a moment to mention the drugs! - it maintains a certain exuberance rather than growing somber, a kind of reflection on how areas like Tokyo's Shinjuku district thrive on a constant supply of ambition and hope, forcing the disappointment, in-fighting, and tragedy to the background whenever possible. That's how Tatsuhiko manages to survive with some level of conscience intact, which can also be said about the place itself.

The high gloss may obscure the everyday tragedies underneath, they're there for those who choose to look. Despite being a longish movie with a lot going on, "Shinjuku Swan" maintains an impressive energy that keeps its ideas in play rather than presenting a drab tragedy that one can easily shrug off.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29393&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/03/15 10:11:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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