With Shinjuku swan, an adaptation of Ken Wakui’s Manga series, Sion Sono presents one of his most commercial narrative to date. While Sion Sono has already ventured in translating manga to the silver screen – with his comically perverted eiga minna esupa da yo! (2015) and his bloody and gruesome Tag (2015), this narrative is one of the more mainstream movies he has made up until now.
Nevertheless, it is easy to see why Sion Sono accepted to direct this narrative, as Shinjuku Swan enables Siono Sono to tackle familiar themes – themes of sexuality and violence between male and female subjects – from a different perspective. While so many manga-adaptions are produced – not all of them as successful, we are aching to uncover if Sion Sono’s Shinjuku Swan is better than the average manga adaptation (General-note 1).
Tatsuhiko Shiratori (Gou Ayano) has hit rock bottom and ends up, without having a purpose, in Shinjuku. When a local gang harass him, Tatsuhiko, even though he is outnumbered, gets in a fight with them. Mr. Mako (Yusuke Iseya), a finely dressed guy in the crowd in talk with a bunch of girls, is charmed by what he sees.
Before Tatsuhiko is sandbagged, the finely dressed guy steps in, and says, to the surprise of the gang, that Tatsuhiko is with him. Mr. Mako offers Tatsuhiko a job as a scout to search for girls who want to works as club hostesses. A job he, as he no money and no real future, happily accepts.
But as his training starts, scouting girls appear to be more difficult than it looks. And before Tatsuhiko knows, he is caught up, as a mere chess piece, in the competition between two scouting agencies, Burst and Harlem. A confrontation with one of the captains of the rival agency Hideyoshi (Takayuki Yamada), who has a history with Tatsuhiko and is focused on conquering the whole of Shinjuku, is bound to happen.
While Shinjuku swan is a slightly over-the-top narrative focusing on the rather naive Tatsuhiko, portraying his exploits and his ‘evolution’ in the world of scouting in Shinjuku, it can also be seen as showing the effects of the objectifying male gaze – the worth of women only being estimated on how much they could earn – and the exploitative businesses woman are introduced to (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2). Nevertheless the narrative counterbalances this, keeping some of its lightheartedness, by implying that, even though the desires of women and men are exploited for economic gain, some women are able to find a source of empowerment in this line of work.
After an initial background sketch, the narrative starts to focus on Hideyoshi’s quest to dominate, the competition between scouts, and the very violent struggle between the two agencies as such. While the narrative drags a bit in the middle of the first hour, Shinjuku Swan provides enough narrative density to keep spectators engaged and guessing in which way the narrative will develop. Nevertheless, while the revelation of the history between Tatsuhiko and Hideyoshi is beautifully visualized, the change in tone – from Seinen to Shonen – infuses this revelation with a slightly inappropriate silliness. Luckily, by way of the intermingling narrative of Ageha (Erika Sawajiri) and Tatsuhiko’s sole focus on enabling women to attain happiness in this line of work, the narrative never loses its critical gaze on the female exploitation and the imaginary gratification of the body-image of women the scouting business thrives upon.
While the acting of Gou Ayano often relies, to provide laughs for the audience, on the Japanese style of comedic acting, i.e. acting with expressive facial expressions, comportment and speech, there is enough subtlety in his performance to communicate, in conjunction with the music, sincere emotion. As a matter of fact, his performance makes sure that the naive Tatsuhiko is instantly likable and that, even if Tatsuhiko finds himself in a very morally dubious world, it is not difficult to identify oneself with his chivalric duty (Actor-note 1, Narra-note 3).
For Shinjuku Swan Sion Sono has opted for a more traditional cinematography, which with its slight preference for camera-movement often gives the cinematography a certain energetic fluidity – especially in certain fighting-scenes (Cine-note 1). While more static cinematographical moments are present as well – often to frame conversations furthering the plot (Cine-note 2), the presence of a certain cinematographical fluidity and, additionally, the usage of pun-focused compositions in the beginning reveal the narrative’s main purpose of entertaining the spectator, while leaving enough room to touch on more serious subjects (Cine-note 3). The purpose of entertaining is further underlined by the musical accompaniment, infusing the cinematography with energy, and the usage of sounds that often enforce the comedic dimension.
Between the expressive comedy and the more ‘sober’ depiction of the excess of violence, Sion Sono succeeds in cinematographically painting an enjoyable, but rather serious narrative that is capable of hitting various emotional notes, while highlighting the problematic nature of Japan’s erotic industry. While the narrative drags a bit in the first hour and an essential plot point misses the correct tone to be truly effective, the likeability of Gou Ayano as Tatsuhiko and surprisingly dense narrative makes sure that Shinjuku Swan is better than your average manga-adaptation.
General note 1: Shinjuku Swan shares the same blend of comedy and violence as Takashii Miike’s The Mole Song: undercover agent Reiji. While The mole song (2013) lacks the narrative density of Shinjuku Swan (2015), the spectator is presented with the same tonal change of explicit comedy in the beginning to a more serious and violent tone in the middle part up until the conclusion.
Narra-note 1: One moment of emotionality is when Tatsuhiko learns that the women he scouts have to work in places with more sexual activities and their job-interviews are more hands-on than he expected.
Narra-note 2: Another moment that has an impact on the spectator is Tatsuhiko’s first encounter with Hideyoshi and his goons.
Narra-note 3: One could say that in the morally dubious world of scouting, Tatsuhiko is driven by a sort of chivalry to enable women to attain happiness and to avoid them to fall victim of exploitation.
The naivety of Tatsuhiko is to be situated at the level where Tatsuhiko takes the happiness of women at face value, while being blind for the problems such kind of women often have before entering the erotic business or develop while working in the business.
Cine-note 1: The cinematographical fluidity is also spiced with techniques like slow-motion, manga-like shots, zoom-ins,… etc. Close-ups, mid-shots, wide-shots are blended together nicely.
Cine note 2: The general flow of the cinematography changes, using more fixed steady shots, when the narrative is taking place in interiors for example.
Cine-note 3: The cinematography quickly reveals its focus on Tatsuhiko, the central character of the narrative, by a succession of often slightly shaky moving and following shots, and some quasi-subjective POV shots – a focus quickly underlined by the contextualizing externalization of Tatsuhiko‘s thoughts as such.
A second character the narrative focuses on is Ageha, as is evident by the, albeit short, externalization of her thoughts, the use of her voice in function of narration, and the following shots that frame her specific narrative.
Actor-note 1: We should also congratulate Yusuke Iseya and Erika Sawajiri on their fine performances.
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