Attended my first screening of Japan Cuts, Japan Society’s annual showcase of recent releases from the Land of the Rising Sun. The film was called Alley Cat (one of three vaguely feline-related movies I’ll be seeing), an interesting deconstruction of gritty, testosterone-fueled crime thrillers that finds both humor and heart in the juxtaposition between its bumbling protagonists’ incompetence and the gravity of the deadly situations in which they repeatedly find themselves. Said “heroes"—a washed-up heavyweight boxer and a dimwitted mechanic, who become unlikely friends after initially butting heads over ownership of a fickle cat—are hired to protect a struggling single mother from an ex-lover-turned-stalker. Unfortunately, the demented man’s actions quickly attract the attention of figures from the woman’s sordid past, forcing her utterly outclassed bodyguards to contend with corrupt politicians and conniving power brokers as they navigate Tokyo’s seedy underbelly.
Like Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, director Hideo Sakaki is clearly attempting to subvert viewers’ expectations by manipulating various contradictory tones: apparent one-off jokes receive dramatic callbacks, moments of triumph lead to somber self-reflection, and otherwise suspenseful scenes are intentionally undercut by inane, meaningless blather about, for example, brands of canned cat food. And, for the most part, he’s resoundingly successful: the audience roared with laughter when the characters enthusiastically (and very, very loudly) congratulated themselves for narrowly surviving a particularly harrowing encounter with gun-toting hitmen, and when the mechanic sullenly retrieved his cigarettes after throwing them during an impassioned speech. However, some pretty severe pacing issues—unnecessarily longwinded exposition, overly repetitious dialogue, and a gratuitous emphasis on disturbing sexual violence—prevents Alley Cat from capturing the effortless rhythm that makes Reservoir Dogs and Shaun of the Dead so delightful. Still, it remains a perfectly enjoyable dark comedy in spite of these flaws, well worth the price of admission. It has an attitude and style I’m not accustomed to encountering in Japanese cinema. I look forward to seeing what other curiosities this festival has to offer.
[Originally written July 15, 2017.]