Never Give Up
- Original title
- Yasei no Shomei
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 142 minutes
- 10 November 2009
by Simon Cotterill
Lovers of Japanese cinema, or any international cinema for that matter, usually need to be very optimistic in order to pay a trip to their local chain DVD rental store these days. But optimistic I am and last year I found Never Give Up among the ex-rental DVDs for sale. Attracted by Ken 'the Japanese Clint Eastwood' Takakura on the front cover and of course the low price, £1.99, I bought it.
Never Give Up's director Junya Sato isn't very well known outside Japan. His film The Go Masters (Mikan no Taikyoku, 1982), an interesting Sino-Japanese co-production, won awards in the US and Canada in 1982. It told the story of a Japanese master of the game 'Go', who travels to China to meet his greatest rival. Finding that his rival's young son is actually better than his famed father, he persuades the Chinese to allow him to take the boy back to Japan and train him as a Go professional. The boy goes with him and a few years later marries his daughter. The film starts in the late 1920s and soon after his wedding, with the outbreak of the Second World War in Asia, the boy, now a man, must choose, between his loyalty to his wife and love for his profession on the one hand and his loyalty to his country and love for his family there on the other. Throughout The Go Masters Sato uses obvious but effective symbolism between Go and Asian politics to highlight the tragic trajectory of relations between China and Japan, and to convey the film's hopes for reconciliation and healing.
Junya Sato and Ken Takakura made a large number of 'by the book' action-adventure films in the 1960s and 70s, often involving gangsters in either America or Japan. Never Give Up is Sato's second adaption of the work of author Seiichi Morimura for the big screen (the first, Proof of a Man / Ningen no Shomei, had been filmed a year earlier). The controversial Morimura is best known in Japan for his book The Devil's Gluttony (Akuma no Hoshoku), which revealed proof of hidden war atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers between 1937 and 1945 but was later found to have used some forged evidence and withdrawn - before being reprinted with only authentic evidence. Never Give Up is less controversial, but it too focuses on a government cover-up.
Takakura plays Ajisawa, a highly skilled member of an elite, secret Japanese paramilitary group. During one of the group's special training missions the population of a village is massacred and only a single survivor is left - a young amnesiac girl. Ridden with guilt Ajisawa adopts the girl, nurses her to health, and leaves the group. However, one year later he returns to the scene of the massacre after a female news reporter investigating the event is murdered. For the police detective investigating the murder, Kitano (Isao Natsuyagi), Ajisawa is initially a suspect but it soon becomes clear to him that the remaining members of the paramilitary group are responsible. The group has decided to also execute Ajisawa for showing softness by adopting the girl, and both the child and Kitano are also targets. Together the three must unite in their escape from the group.
Never Give Up's Japanese title Yasei no Shomei translates directly as 'Proof of the Wild' and throughout the film army training sequences, exciting chase scenes, and emotive exchanges take place against a green wilderness backdrop. The production values are very high and Sato presents the duality of these peaceful but dangerous locations well. The acting is also strong: Takakura of course leads the way as the stoic Ajisawa who is forced into compassion, but all of the main supporting cast (which includes many Toei yakuza movie regulars) manage to deliver convincing performances. Sadly, the film's action scenes, despite obviously high investment, appear for the most part very dated. Fans of The A-Team may enjoy their now retro feel, but others will find themselves cringing a little. However, the plot is well paced and has more than enough twists and turns to keep a viewer entertained with what is a convincing tale of redemption.
Two of Sato's other films to receive international attention are The Silk Road (Ton Ko), another Sino-Japanese co-production about Chinese students who are shanghaied into becoming military troops, and The Bullet Train (Shinkansen Daibakuha), a high-concept, low-rate film whose only real claim to fame is that it provided the inspiration for the 1994 Keanu Reeves vehicle Speed. Perhaps the best western equivalent for Junya Sato would be someone like Speed's director Jan De Bont or Michael Bay. For the most part, his work convinces without astounding, dealing with interesting themes in obvious ways. Looking back, Never Give Up wasn't at all out of place at my local chain rental store. But it was well worth the £1.99 at least.