Japanese Title: Heat After Dark
Release Date: 1997 (Japan)
Running Time: 50 mins.
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Writer: Ryuhei Kitamura (Screenplay)
Starring: Atsuro Watabe, Kazuma Suzuki, Shigeru Izumiya, Toshiyuki Kitami, Masami Miyata, Shinichi Suzuki, Shun Sugata
Heat After Dark was a random purchase I made alongside another Yakuza film, Onibi: The Fire Within. I had no idea what it was about, just that it starred Atsuro Watabe from Love Exposure and it was the theatrical debut of Ryuhei Kitamura, director of the cult favourite yakuza/zombie film Versus.
In the opening sequence all we can see is a low shot of two men from the knees down as a man named Reiji (Watabe) walks into a bar. This could be the start of a joke… Reiji is meeting his friend Goto (Suzuki). After some small talk Goto says, “I killed someone.”
There is a brief pause.
“Very funny,” Reiji says.
“He’s over there,” Goto replies thinly. Reiji turns and a body is revealed slumped against the bar. Goto had borrowed 20 billion yen from the dead man who is the leader of a Yakuza gang and Goto needs Reiji to help him dispose of the body and so they head to Yakeyama, a place about to be flooded because a dam is being built. However the tunnel to their destination is chained shut and a police officer is hovering around.
Two young guys in suits with a flashy foreign car out in the middle of nowhere? That strikes him as highly suspicious. “Do you have something to hide?” he asks.
Reiji is forced to open the trunk. But there is no body! Suddenly Goto charges down the tunnel and into an abandoned factory surrounded by verdant grasslands and streams. As they rush into the area a gunshot strikes Reiji on the crown of the head. There is another gangster (Izumiya) and it turns out he is selling guns to a gang and that the real reason for Goto being there is to kill this gangster who betrayed him before the deal goes down!
And that is about it as far as the plot goes. At fifty minutes, it feels like a film with the scenes containing plot development edited out to highlight the action. There are few character details given to us and what little we get is given in bizarre moments when people stop mid-gunfight to have trivial conversations.
Kitamura is famous for his action and flashy visuals and if I were being glib I would say that this is a flashy film with a bunch of guys running around an abandoned factory shooting at each other… There is a surfeit of style at the beginning. The aforementioned low-shots at the bar and the use of still images for the passage of a conversation in the car journey to Yakeyama was a little too pretentious for my taste. Once at Yakeyama the camera is incessantly floating around and slowly zooming in on actors. When it calmed down I felt that the film’s visuals and audio were infused with a weird surreal energy and this energy makes me hesitate to write it off despite the thin premise.
The abandoned factory location is a forgotten paradise where nature is reclaiming the structure, the rusted pipes and shacks with leaf fronds poking out and the abandoned but mostly intact building being an example of beautiful decay. The film is shot with inventive angles like an action manga that accentuates the coolness of the characters as they burst into scenes and pose. It is fluid and the editing is sharp but there is also this discordant element to the visuals as a lot of scenes are shot with a combination of hazy and stark lighting which suffuse everything with light and smoke.
In terms of the audio the film is rarely quiet and is strange. Things like gunshots are accentuated but it is the music that catches the ear as break-beats, trippy progressive rock music and laconic guitars are slathered over the film to accompany gunfights. In moments when characters babble about inconsequential things or stalk corridors we hear throat singing, didgeridoos and strange quasi-religious chanting until there is a cut to the next gunfight or a character runs off.
The acting is also just-so. Watabe as Reiji runs around with a bullet hole in his scalp (did he die?) and looks as bewildered as I felt as he tries to fathom out what the heck is going on from the lack of information but it is not long before he joins in the fun. Atsuro Watabe looks totally cool in a gunfight and since he is credited as executive producer he gets that right. Suzuki as Goto catches a certain desperation brought about by the fact he is in a tough spot, a desperation which wanes towards the end (perhaps his soul has already departed). Overall everybody is committed and this feels like a one-shot action manga where visuals take precedence over story.
I am tempted to write it off as being a prime example of a film that is all surface but I was almost hypnotised by the audio visual mix which give an almost supernatural quality to the proceedings. I don’t think we are meant to care so much about having access to the characters as the plot and characterisation are perfunctory. The film is more about the action and the surreal feeling which becomes strange, almost religious with the music and it is this strangeness that saves the film. It is an existential nightmare where the characters hunt each other and frantically rush about but it gets them nowhere. Is this the Yakuza version of Waiting for Godot? Is this a vision of the Yakuza afterlife? What the hell am I writing??? This is a simple action film and nothing more but at the end I felt I had been somewhat entertained so any score lower than a 3 would be wrong.
My DVD was the Asian Film Network version from Austria. It came with German dubbing (which sounded totally wrong!) and English subtitles. The extras include a making-of (German narrator/Japanese subtitles) and a trailer reel for other releases from Asian Film Network like Takashi Miike’s Full Metal Yakuza.