The City of Lost Souls
- Original title
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 105 minutes
- 3 April 2001
by Jasper Sharp
He doesn't half churn them out, that Takashi Miike. The cinema screens the world over have barely had a chance to cool down since Audition hit the international circuit, and with the director averaging on about four films a year there's already quite a backlog of material that we will probably never get to see in their full theatrical glory. Still, if the sheer quantity of Miike's work barely leaves us time to draw breath, at least we can console ourselves with the fact that there's little respite in terms of the quality either.
City of Lost Souls is another tour de force from arguably Japan's premier visual stylist of the moment, a turbo-charged piece of blood-drenched gangster lunacy set against the backdrop of Rio, Okinawa and Tokyo's Shinjuku district. Loosely adapted from the novel by Seishu Hase, Miike's latest but one of that year (its box-office release in Japan at the tail end of 2000 was rapidly followed up by Dead or Alive 2) plunges straight into the action in his own inimitable style, a practically wordless ten minute sequence in which our hero Mario (played by the Brazilian-Japanese non-actor Teah) is unleashed from jail and sets out straight away on an airborne mission by helicopter to retrieve his Chinese moll, the beautiful Kei (Michelle Reis) from a busload of illegal aliens on their way to being deported. Once back in Tokyo the two get caught in the crossfire between a cocaine smuggling Chinese triad and a sadistic yakuza boss and his henchman in a brutal stand-off that will ultimately leave the streets of Shinjuku strewn with corpses before the film's grisly resolution.
There's no pretense about what this film's all about, a fast-paced actioner with its tongue firmly planted in cheek. Miike, never one to be hampered by audience expectations, bends the framework to his own needs to create another skewed piece of entertainment, a relentless flurry of images which alternate between the grotesque and the absurd. Shinjuku is rendered as a cosmopolitan haven for the cast of colourful multinational reprobates that inhabit it, a garishly vibrant portrait of the district made up of smoky Latino cafés and sleazy cellar bars inhabited by corrupt vodka-swilling Russian business men and sultry Brazilian hookers - are we really still in Tokyo?
Simple plot twists are delivered in a humorous, almost irreverent style taking its cues from such early auteurs as Seijun Suzuki in their playfully inventive approach to framing: the murder of a South American drug baron takes place in a single shot from the bottom of a bar room toilet bowl, two turds floating in the foreground as the lengthy micturition is curtailed by a blow to the back of the head. A dwarf brushes his teeth with cocaine. Three Chinese dope smugglers hole up in their cavernous hideaway as the trench-coated yakuza blasts his way across the city to find them. Elsewhere the action unfolds in sequences of ostentatious virtuosity, utilising almost subliminal edits and a full arsenal of technical trickery, including death by ping pong, and a Matrix-inspired comical CGI cockfighting session that has to be seen to be believed.
Though the finer details of the story often lag beneath the onscreen bombast, with far too many characters vying for attention for any of it to mean very much, the end result is never dull. Colourful and exotic or cluttered and chaotic, even if the whole never quite manages to add up to the sum of its parts and lacks the weight of some of his earlier work, Takashi Miike on cruise-control is still a devastating force. We can only wait for the day when the rest of the world catches up.