Live-action adaptations of manga are a booming business in Japan. While this trend is not applauded by everyone – a proliferation structuring the business, one cannot deny that the potential these narratives have often led to enjoyable end products – e.g. Moteki (2011), Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (2014), and Tokyo Ghoul (2017). Is Kan Eguchi, an unknown director with a limited oeuvre but with excellent credentials, able to adapt Katsuhisa Minami’s seinen manga The Fable in something worthy of our time? Let’s find out in our review.
One day, Fable (Junichi Okada), a famous contract-killer, is ordered to stay low for a year in Osaka. While receives Akira Sato as his alter-ego, his partner (Fumino Kimura) is given the identity of Yoko Sato, Akira’s younger sister.
When contract killer Fudo (Sota Fukushi) and his partner inspect Fable’s last work of art, one of them correctly suspects it’s the work of the urban myth Fable. Full of excitement, he states his plan to Fable, kill him and replace him as the new urban myth.
While the Maguro office – a yakuza office, led by Ebihara (Ken Yasuda) and the Hamada (Ken Mitsuishi) in Osaka has no other choice than accept Fable and his partner, this obligation comes at a bad time, as the imminent release of Kojima (Yuya Yagira) raises the tensions in the underworld of Osaka.
The narrative of The Fable concerns how Fable, the fabled contract killer, is forced to hide behind the image of being a plain citizen within society – a plain citizen with a plain job. But, as quickly becomes clear, the fact that his going underground is linked with the Yakuza will eventually become the obstacle for his mission to lay low and his prohibition to kill. It is thus only due to this link with the Yakuza – a link threatening to suck him into the world of conflict and violence he was ordered to avoid, that it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid returning to his shadowy life. While the impossibility of avoiding his truth originates from the fact that Ebihara knows his legendary reputation, one should also not fail to note that, as is pleasingly revealed in one sequence in the narrative, the possibility of upholding this plain image for the others in society is also function of his skills as assassin.
The central event of the narrative – the event that inaugurates the condition for Fable’s failure of using his skills as an assassin, is not so much Kojima’s release and the tensive conflicts his path of masturbatory infliction of violence and provocation ignites, but the act of him threatening Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto; The Kirishima Thing (2012)), the girl Fable has taken a liking to, into prostitution. What makes this narrative turning point so powerful is the strong aversion Kojima’s vile extortion and threats is able to arouse in the spectator and the tension these acts infuse into the narrative – a tension absorbing the spectator even more strongly into the narrative than already was the case.
While the central flashback to Fable’s childhood in the structure of the narrative highlights, with a touch of emotionality, Fable’s special relation with his boss (Koichi Sato) and his training, this flashback is also successful in providing, albeit in a subtle way, an explanation for Fable’s many lighthearted quirks – those quirks at the level of eating that do not fail to reveal Fable’s problems to integrate himself. The likeability of Fable as a character, for that matter, is not so much function of the emotionality evoked via this flashback but function of those little quirks – his love for comedian Jackal Tomioka (Daisuke Miyagawa) included – that become apparent in the process of integrating himself into the mundane and every-day fabric of society.
Those that feel that the style of The Fable lacks consistency, fail to see how, by way of a well-structured and a well-paced narrative, Kan Eguchi succeeded in crafting an extremely pleasing and balanced cocktail of blunt bloody violence, nail-biting tension, cool action, and pleasing lightheartedness born from interactions. The pleasing structure of the narrative is also revealed by the fact that Yusuke Watanabe managed to erase the manga-like chapter structure and create a natural unfolding narrative.
As The Fable is also an action-narrative, it should not surprise us that the cinematographical composition is full of movement. One can easily discern three tendencies in the application of fluid movement, be it following or spatial. The first tendency is the tendency to introduce the setting – the narrative spaces – and characters or narrative elements that are essential to the unfolding of the narrative. After framing a narrative space in such introductory way, the subsequent framing of (speech-)interaction between characters is often framed with fixity or semi-fixity. The second tendency, as is expected, is the very tendency of supporting action scenes with cinematographical movement. And, finally, the third tendency concerns the use of following movement to highlight the movements of characters – mainly Akira Sato’s movement.
The dimension of light-heartedness in The Fable is directly sensible by its visual aspects. This aspects do not only refer to the comedic effect of over-acting or the fluid integration of cinematographical techniques (slow-motion, pov-shots) to enhance the framing flow, but to the special visualization of Fable’s action-moments as such, i.e. overlaying most of his moments of violent action with textual information.
Note that the framing of violence in the narrative thread of those hunting Fable down and the violence within the narrative thread of psycho Kojima is ever devoid of lightheartedness. These narrative strands are, instead, marked by a sensibly tension, a tension related to the anticipation of violence, and most apt to resound the dull and cruel impact of violence within the narrative space.
Besides these visual ornaments, there are also sound ornaments present in the cinematographical composition of The Fable. While the sounds supporting the somewhat unconventional shot transitions are such ornaments, these sounds only play a minor role in giving the narrative its lightheartedness. The truly effective sound-ornament, effective in infusing a subtle light atmosphere, are those subtle musical manipulations that support/guide the flow of speech-interactions. Note that within the cinematographical whole, these sound-ornaments are only used in a limited manner, with the latter form of ornaments quickly disappearing from the compositional tools.
Despite these ornaments of lightheartedness, the spectator is still enabled to feel the impact of the violence and moments of action. This is not so much attained by cinematographical composition or by visually framing the impact (e.g. with blood) of violence, but by the way the sound-design (e.g. the dull sounds of gunshots) comes to support the framing of the action as such – a support empowering the sensibility of the impact of violence.
What’s truly great about the cinematographical composition of The Fable is that the narrative succeeds, aided by powerful musical pieces, in framing Fable’s action in an exciting and cool way – a coolness directly speaking to and enticing the fantasy of the spectator. The culmination of this enticing coolness is to be found in the visually spectacular and downright crazy final action-sequence – exciting personal showdowns, old-school shootdowns, and impressive action-moves are all mixed into an extremely enjoyable package that does not fail to provide the thrills an action-movie should have. But despite the enjoyment one can extract from this action-sequence, one musical tonal shift disturbs, due to its ill-fitting nature, the otherwise splendid exciting visual ride that transforms into a satisfying narrative conclusion.
The narrative’s unfolding – and the grasping of the spectator’s interest – is also function of various great performances. Junichi Okada reveals with his amazing performance the composure he has as an actor. It is only due to this composure – this self-control, that the surprising moments of over-acting, as contrasted with Fable’s otherwise cold and composed manner, can become truly funny. While Fumino Kimura is not tested in such way, she nevertheless succeeds in giving her character’s mood-swings in interactions an adorable and pleasing lightheartedness. Yuya Yagira (Destruction Babies (2016), His Lost Name (2018) is, like expected, captivating as Kojima, bringing the very auto-erotic pleasure his blood-splattering causes in a ravishing way to the fore. Last but not least, Mizuki Yamamoto infuses her lady-in-distress with the necessary emotionality for the spectator to root for her saviour.
To immediately answer the question we posed in our introduction, The Fable is one of those live-action adaptations that is worthy of your time. By mixing quirky lightheartedness, cool action, and brute violence, Kan Eguchi succeeds in composing an action-narrative that, by hitting all the necessary beats, ensures the spectator’s enjoyment. The Fable might not be testing the limits of the genre, but it’s great in what it does: provides a highly entertaining visual ride.