Besides having his hands full with coordinating or directing stunts for other movies and dramas, Kensuke Sonomura also finds the time to take the director’s seat. Three years after deliverin his pleasant but flawed Hydra (2019), he’s back to present his yakuza action-thriller Bad City.
One day, Wataru Gojo (Lily Franky), the chairman of the Gojo conglomerate, is acquitted of bribery and collusion. The reason for his acquittal lies, as some rightly suspect, in his strong ties with the prosecutor’s office and other politicians. At the press conference, he announces that he will step down from his position and run for mayor. He expresses the believe that Kaiko City, a city plagues by poverty and violence, can become prosperous under his supervision.
Yet, prosecutor Hirayama (Masaya Kato) refuses to accept his defeat. To arrest Hojo, he orders Koizumi (Dan Mitsu) from Public Safety to establish a secret special investigation division with four members: lieutenant Satoshi Kumamoto (Hideto Katsuya), Ryota Nishizaki (Masanori Mimoto), lieutenant Megumi Nohara (Akane Sakanoue), and captain and suspected murderer Makoto Torada (Hitoshi Ozawa).
Bad City is an action-thriller is the purest sense of the word. The narrative is not only full of set-ups, betrayals, assassinations, secrets, and acts of revenge, but also features many pleasant brawls and thrilling face-offs. The fighting sequences do not only feel cool, due to their roughness and the down-to-earth choreography, but also succeed in fluidly offering a fleeting moment of light-heartedness (Sound-note 1). This ultimately culminates into a fabulous finale that delivers deliciously violent action-sequences as well as some highly unexpected narrative twists.
While Bad City does not pretend to explore its themes that deeply, one can still read Sonomura’s narrative as a subtle critique on societal dynamics and exploration of the truth of desire. At first glance, the film is a simple narrative of greed. It is evident that Gojo is only focused on enriching himself and gaining more power. He is not driven by a desire to make Kaiko city prosperous for the ‘people’, but by the hidden desire to exploit the city’s land to accumulate wealth for himself. The redevelopment of the west district would allow Gojo to build an integrated casino resort. Yet, as Kaiko city’s laws forbids foreign investment, he lacks the capital to realize his desire and satisfy his thirst (Narra-note 1).
Of course, to satisfy his greed, Gojo established the necessary connections, attained the chess-pieces to manoeuvre or sacrifice. His most important ‘ally’ is Kim Seung-gi (Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi), who against the wishes of his boss (-), conspires with him. His choice to do Gojo dirty work is, unsurprisingly, fuelled by his thirst for wealth and power, by his greed.
When Torada questions the way signifiers like evil or right are used, he introduces the main truth that structures Bad City. When he says that he sometimes feels that all people are the same and that the only thing that separates them is whether they bathe in the light or reside in the shadows, he evokes the uncomfortable truth that all subjects are marked, deep down, by dark selfish desires and by a thirst for enjoyment.
Torada’s signifiers also highlight that whether those who actively seek for power and wealth are seen as being right or wrong from a societal perspective depends on their position with respect to the law – i.e. a bright position supported by the exploitable and bendable law or a shadowy position agitated by its letter. In other words, Torada reveals the psychoanalytic idea that right and wrong only exist because the desiring subject is caught within a symbolic network, a field of signifiers that structure his social field and give him his subjective existence. Right and wrong, in other words, do not have an essence, the thirst for enjoyment does (Narra-note 2).
The composition of Bad City succeeds in engaging the spectator via its pleasing dynamism. Yet, it would be wrong to state that the pleasing nature of this dynamism is only due to Sonomura’s reliance on dynamic shots or his effective editing. It is, in a certain sense, the lingering threat or the anticipatory sense of danger that the subdued musical accompaniment infuses in the visuals that allows the dynamism to attain its power to engage the spectator.
Sonomura also heightens the visual pleasure of his composition by fluidly integrating visual decorations and by delivering shot-compositions that, either by thoughtfully exploiting the geometrical dimensions or by utilizing distinct colour-schemes, offer sudden surges of visual elegance.
The gritty and dramatic flavour of the film are mainly carried by the performances. Not only does each actor fuel their character with a cool roughness, but each male actor pleasantly utilize rhythm and moments of silence to infuse delicious dramatics into the narrative and heighten the sense of danger. Nevertheless, Hitoshi Ozawa’s performance stands out from the pack. He owns every scene and ensures, with his charismatic presence, that the spectator remains glued to the screen.
Akane Sakanoue and Dan Mitsu – heighten, in their own way, the drama of Bad City, be it by echoing the danger of the unknown or by underlining the importance of the assignment via the coldness and frankness that marks Koizumi’s speech.
Bad City delivers everything one expects from an action-thriller – a compositional rhythm that engages the spectator, many bursts of crude fighting that feel cool, and a violent finale with some unexpected twists. While a deeper exploration of the theme of greed would have improved the overall impact of the narrative, the charismatic performance Hitoshi Ozawa more than compensates such lack. Highly recommended.
Narra-note 1: His decision to run for mayor is merely motivated by the ability he would have to repeal the bill that forbids foreign investment.
Narra-note 2: Later in the narrative, it is underlined that while each subject is marked by a desire for power and enjoyment, it is merely via certain societal structures that the subject is made aware of this desire and seduced to pursue it.
Sound-note 1: The roughness of the fighting is also underlined by the accompanying sound (e.g. swishing of sticks, bats and fists, the firing of guns, the impact of punches and kicks, … etc.). Some of the sounds sound old-school, but that does pose any problem for the spectator’s enjoyment.