Failed — or at least distracted — actor Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki) spends his days dismally holed up in front of a slot machine, a poster child for what we in Australia would call pokies addiction. Quiet and vulnerable, he is manipulated into taking a job he can’t turn down and joins a team of smugglers for the Yakuza: moving a truck full of things that need to pass unnoticed, often things that are suspiciously man-shaped.
Kinuta’s comparatively prosaic road movie story intersects with the rather more brightly coloured, slow-mo-infused tale of two Chinese assassins, also working for the Yakuza. I have to give credit to the subtitling team that handled the English transation here: though the IMDB entry lists these two fellows as Spine and Naizô (offal), Madman has chosen to render them more poetically as Vertebrae and Viscera, names which trip off the tongue beautifully. Vertebrae (Ando Masanobu, Big Bang Love, Juvenile A and Battle Royale) and Viscera (Ryushin Tei) are supernaturally gifted at their craft in a larger-than-life, comic-book fashion, betraying the story’s manga origins.
Filling out the cast are the hard-bitten driver of the smuggling operation, Joe (Masatoshi Nagase), his diminutive sidekick Jijii (Tatsuya Gasyuin), cosplaying mercenary banker and fixer, Yuki Yamaoka (Yasuko Matsuyuki) and a host of Yakuza thugs, chief amongst whom is the eyebrow-wagglingly unhinged Kawashima (Masahiro Takashima).
I can’t say much more about the plot without giving away spoilers, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the movie’s violence. Sandwiched into the thriller about the down-and-out actor who turns courier for the mob and the anime-esque exploits of Vertabrae and Viscera as they cut a swathe through rival Yakuza is a long and (for me, at least) thoroughly overdone torture sequence. Here, one of the characters is strapped down and hurt for about twenty minutes, on what feels like the thinnest of pretexts. I found it gratuitous and unnecessary, an excuse for some serious gore and (very) gallows humour that just left me uncomfortable without much of a story-driven rationale to back it up.
Smuggler shows its influences plainly, particularly Takashi Miike’s 2001 cult favourite Ichi the Killer, which is actually gorier still… but somehow more watchable, thanks to the sustained, challenging strangeness of the film. Ando Masanobu’s performance here is very reminiscent of Tadanobu Asano’s Kakihara in Ichi, but with the benefit of a decade’s advances in special effects, and he’s probably the most watchable character of the bunch. Joe, the grizzled veteran smuggler, is also well-played but under-developed (owing, perhaps, to the screen time devoted to ripping out fingernails.) Kinuta, our lead, is very much the straight man in all this, the quiet, eager-to-please youngster surrounded by so many cartoonish characters. It’s almost as if he’s written as a warning to hesitant slacker youth everywhere: take control of your life, or things might spiral out of control disastrously.
At the end of the day, I think Smuggler is one for the intersection between fans of the manga and those with strong stomachs.