I've been watching Japanese movies for a long time. I've always had a great fondness for them, but most of what is released in America is fantasy, sci-fi, a cartoon, or all three in one. Not that I'm complaining too much. However, after moving to Japan, I have taken advantage of the much-more-varied cinematic dishes available here. Last year I stumbled upon G@me, based on the novel by Keigo Higashino. G@me was perhaps my first straight-up Japanese thriller, and if it is any indication of their general quality, then strap me in, folks, because I want to ride again.
Shunsuke Sakuma (Naohito Fujiki) is your classic intelligent, money-munching, rival-stomping corporate ladder-climber. But when his latest project for Mikado Beer is shot down by the overbearing CEO, Mr. Katsuragi (Ryo Ishibashi), Sakuma's pride is gouged and his anger runs thick. When he subsequently stumbles upon Mr. Katsuragi's spoiled daughter (Yukie Nakama) making a clandestine excursion from the Katsuragi residence, Sakuma smells the succulent scent of opportunity and confronts her, digging for information. Miss Katsuragi has her own grudge against her father, and together they plan a fake kidnapping in order to relieve Mr. Katsuragi of a big chunk of change and salve Sakuma's wounded hubris. However, things are never so simple, and their kidnapping caper turns and twists into a complicated game of deception piled upon deception, and any further plot description would be stealing the huge fun this movie has to offer.
G@me is a thriller, and a slick one. The plot has so many twisty turns it's sometimes a little difficult to follow, let alone guess the upcoming curves. It is delightful plotting that is more clever than realistic and a joy to watch unravel. The story is not without faults, however. The pacing occasionally becomes somewhat tepid, and there was at least one very small plot hole that is easily reasoned away. Furthermore, in their zeal to mislead the audience, the screenwriters sometimes didn't clearly delineate what was reality and what was just Sakuma's assumptions about what Mr. Katsuragi and the police were doing. Furthermore, as is often the case in movies like this, character depth is unimportant in light of furthering plot machinations. Occasionally characters seem to make decisions that have for their primary motivation the urge to push the plot into its next fun twist. And then there's the ending, which is a bit disgruntling if you're not ready for it. However, this movie excels at what it is—plot-driven, lightweight (but complex) fun.
The acting compliments the story extremely well. I admit, the main reason I wanted to see this film was for Yukie Nakama. Having lived in Japan for a few years, I have seen her again and again on posters, life-sized cardboard cutouts hocking au KDDI cell phones, hosting the NHK Kohaku Uta Gassen, or smiling on the cover of several big-release DVDs. I wanted to see her signature Trick film based on the hit television series, but the lack of English subtitles told me it would be a quick trip to brain pain and confusion. I can get by on simple stories with raw Japanese, but complicated stories like I knew Trick would have need near native-level comprehension. (I didn't realize at the time that I had already seen her in a movie. She had a bit part in Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris.) I was ecstatic when I found the G@me DVD included subs, and Miss Nakama's performance does not disappoint. G@me really demands a versatile performance from her, and she pulls off her character's emotional vacillations and tribulations wonderfully.
Naohito Fujiki as Mr. Sakuma isn't quite as impressive, mostly because his character isn't as interesting. That's not to say his performance is bad, but Mr. Sakuma is another of those super-smart, self-consciously cool, emotionally cold (until he falls in love) characters that seem so popular in Japan. Fujiki's acting is fine, if a bit too static for my tastes; he just doesn't have as much to do.
The supporting cast is great, with Ryo Ishibashi standing out as the hubris-infested, confident Mr. Katsuragi. He struts and gloats and commands, and I really believed that he was a company CEO. In some ways, he seems a lot like my own boss here. Delightful. I can't think of one cast member who failed to add to the experience.
For those who care about such things (I do), I know it's tough to tell what kind of content is going to be found in foreign films. G@me is mostly "clean" and there is very little violence except for a stabbing. There is, however, a scene wherein Miss Katsuragi and Sakuma are in a love hotel and she turns on the TV to discover some hot-and-heavy action going on. There is no nudity there, although it comes close. Later there is an extended sex scene, but it is perhaps the most tastefully done sex scene I have ever witnessed—showing mostly just their faces kissing without any moaning, groaning, or other cinematic titillation.
Something must be said for the cinematography. The scenes are well-framed, the action is easy to follow throughout, and there are also occasional stylized flourishes that I enjoyed. It's true that some of the editing begins to look like something out of CSI, and at the beginning there's a scene depicting Sakuma driving his sports car that is all quick cuts and flashing lights set to thumping rap that is straight out of a music video—but I loved it. It's bombastic styling, but I found myself grinning along to the excess.
The soundtrack consists of a wide variety of styles. The very first scene contains a song that is almost operatic playing over a pan of Tokyo. Next, as the story really begins, there was the aforementioned rap song by the band Zeebra—they succeed in sounding fairly African-American, especially when they throw in some growling English like "It's all a game." Pretty good pronunciation for J-rap. Much of the background music is popping, hissing, ratcheting synthesized stuff that incorporates all sorts of sound effects with electric and bass guitar riffs. I like this kind of music, actually, and it conveys a sense of urgency and general tension well. There are also several recurring themes, including a very simple romantic theme that repeats many times throughout the film. They mix it up by playing it with strings, piano, and bells, but it is played so often and is so repetitive that it just begins to wear out by the end. One more interesting musical touch was the inclusion of "Love You the Lord" from Handel's Messiah during a restaurant scene. The scene drips in what is quite probably unintentional irony, as the lyrics to the song are all about God's grace and mercy and the action of the scene is all about gloating and put-downs. Lovely. (Pretty impressed I picked up on that, huh? Alright, actually I was watching the film with my music-genius friend RS, and she pointed it out to me. If only I didn't have this compulsion to be honest all the time…)
For its genre, this is a very good film. Excusing its fairly shallow characterizations and some arguably overly stylized bits (which, really, one can expect with a title that includes an @ mark for an "a"), G@me is well worth playing. Recommended.