Film fans might know Junji Sakamoto from his boxing narratives Dotsuitarunen (1989) and Tekken (1990) or his action films Tokarefu (1994) and New Battles Without Honor and Humanity (2000). In more recent years, Sakamoto has tried his hand at various genres, like the mystery genre with his A Chorus of Angels (2012), biopics with Ernesto (2017) and the drama genre with Another World (2019). Now, he tries his hand at the neo-noir genre.
Renji Ishibashi, for that matter, has in recent years only appeared in films and drama’s in supporting roles like in The Blood of Wolves (2018) and Another World (2019), but I Never Shot Anyone marks his return to spotlight as lead actor.
Susumu Ichikawa or Reiji Omae (Renji Ishibashi) seems to be living a completely mundane life with his wife Yayoi (Michiyo Okusu). Yet, on his apple computer, carefully protected by passwords, lies a treasure cove of crime scene reports for him to draw inspiration from for his writing. And in the upper drawer of his desk, he hides a Ruger Mark 1 with a silencer.
Ichikawa is, in fact, a writer who is struggling to become relevant again. His shift to writing hardboiled noir novels was not successful either, as his initial drafts were nothing more than bad imitations of books written by famous writer Kenzo Kitakata. His editor (Koichi Sato), finds it rather strange that his more recent drafts are all based on unsolved murders and are too rich in details. Without stating it explicitly, he voices his suspicion of Ichikawa being the very contract-killer he writes about. Not that much later, Ishida (Ittoku Kishibe), a former prosecutor who now works as a fixer, approaches Ichikawa with another murder request.
I Never Shot Anyone is a narrative about a writer who, to be able to write his hardboiled stories, decided to immerse himself into the world of contract-killers. Ichikawa’s life is carefully split in two worlds, the world of the mundane husband subservient to his caring wife and the world of the hard-boiled contract-killer prowling his target by day and wandering (intoxicated) through the faint colours of the night. The contrast between these worlds is, most clearly, signaled by a difference in garments – mundane pajamas or casual clothes when he is with his wife versus a somewhat suspicious clothing combination (i.e. black suit, tinted sunglasses, a black glove, and a ‘film noir’ hat) when he is off on his own – and the radical change in his behaviour, trading his subservient attitude towards his wife for a posture of a hardened but wistful lone wolf.
Yet, Sakamoto subtly underlines that while Ichikawa accepts murder requests from Ishida and carefully investigates his next target by tailing and observing him, he never pulls the trigger. His investigations may lead to murders, but Ichikawa only enacts this conscious hard-boiled fantasy full of genre cliches – cliches about how to act (e.g. drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, threaten people with a gun, …etc.), how to dress, and how to speak (i.e. curt and crude) – as to be able to write his novels. For the spectator, this performed hard-boiled fantasy has, due to its unresolvable contrast with contemporary times, a subtle farcical and anachronistic flavour.
The ultimate plot-twist plays out like a rather famous Lacanian joke. One day, a man who believed himself to be kernel of grain is taken to a mental institution. After some time, the psychiatrists succeed in curing him and allow him to leave the hospital. Yet, not long thereafter, he returns, scared and trembling. He has seen a chicken. The psychiatrist, somewhat surprised, states: “You know very well that you are not a kernel of grain”. “Yes”, answers the man, “but does the chicken know?” Similarly, Ichikawa knows very well that he is not a real contract-killer, that he merely enacts its preparatory stages as a fantasy to be able to write, but do the Yakuza that target former prosecutor Ishida know? And how does Ichikawa’s wife interpret her husband’s suspicious and secretive behaviour?
The composition of I Never Shot Anyone has some pleasant visual elements. Sakamoto utilizes slow camera movement in a visually enticing way and succeeds in giving various of his shot compositions an artful flavour. Sakamoto’s displays his artistic flair most clearly in the way he utilizes convex mirrors and side-mirrors and how he, with much subtlety, exploits the geometrical dimension of certain interiors.
These artistic elements are complemented with a darkish and somewhat noirish colour and lightning design. In many cases, it is the subdued nature of the lightning-design that allows Sakamoto to make the artfulness of certain shots really discernible and to visually please the spectator.
Yet, while Sakamoto delivers some visually pleasing moments, his composition lacks the necessary grit and style to truly give Ichikawa’s story its thrilling dimension. While he has all the cinematographical elements in his hand to build up some tension in his narrative, his refusal to do so makes it difficult for the spectator to invest emotionally in the narrative (Cine-note 1). A lack of thought in applying jazzy musical accompaniment to his imagery renders Sakamoto unable to emphasize the subtle artistic flavour of his composition.
I Never Shot Anyone might be a pleasant narrative overall, but the identity crisis it suffers from renders Sakamoto’s film unable to truly satisfy the spectator. Sakamoto is tasked with juggling the serious noirish elements with the more farcical elements, but his refusal to commit fully to the noirish visual style results in a film that is neither able to appease film-noir fans nor able to deliver its farces with a comical punch. Sakamoto creates a nice, pleasant ride, but one that will be easily forgotten.
Cine-note 1: Some emotionality is nevertheless allowed to blossom into the finale due to Sakamoto’s combination of dynamic slow-motion shots and music. In certain instances, a subtle amount of tension is generated, in others a forlorn atmosphere is evoked or a combination of the two.