Review: Negotiator Mashita Masayoshi (2005)

Directed by:
Cast: , ,

Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

Surprisingly perhaps, Negotiator Mashita Masayoshi is a good film. I say surprisingly, because I am of the long held and regularly confirmed opinion that Japanese action films don’t really know how to be truly good. Cult, yes. Cool and crazy and somewhat quirky, sure. But there’s either too much comedy, or not enough. Or they take themselves too seriously, or they wouldn’t know serious if it hit them with a stick, or the characters are too one-dimensional, or the acting is too over-the-top, or the soundtrack is too strange…

Pick, pick, pick. Yeah, I know, but if you’re anything like me, you were weaned on American action films, and in comparison to the bigger-than-Ben-Hur approach the Americans favour, Japanese action sometimes seems to take more after Mr. Bean than Bruce Willis. Take the material Negotiator spins off from, for instance – the Bayside Shakedown phenomena (otherwise known as Odoru Daisosasen), consisting of a highly popular TV series which aired in 1997, several tele-movies and two big-screen films, none of which could be said to hold a candle to something like Die Hard, or even Infernal Affairs. Instead of ‘Ho, ho, ho. Now I have a machine gun’, you get ‘Hai, hai, hai. Wakarimashita’. A significant cultural difference, but this is part of the reason why this franchise was so successful – it wasn’t about getting the bad guys so much as getting by. Kind of like a salaryman superhero show, where leaping bureaucratic red tape in a single bound was a little more important than being faster than a speeding bullet, something to which the majority of the Japanese public could probably relate.

Enter Negotiator Mashita, which is not too much and just enough of pretty much everything that made the Bayside Shakedown series good. Christmas Eve and several hours from what is probably The Date of his life, something goes wrong on the TTR, Tokyo’s foremost rail system, and Mashita, the only negotiator in the Tokyo Metropolitan police force, is called in to duty. Seems there’s someone messing with the subway system, and he knows Mashita by name…

It’s not a set up you won’t have seen before, but there’s something about the everyman approach to this series that gives this particular instalment more heart than it might have otherwise deserved. It’s not really an action film in the classic sense; it doesn’t manage a body count, despite the potentially catastrophic combination of bombs and perpetual peak-hour public transport, but that perhaps is understandable. Just watching as TTR statistics are explained – how many people commute on the Tokyo subway, how many trains run every day and how precisely they have to be timed – just the idea that something could go wrong with the computer system running that network is enough to terrify. A more Western, disaster-orientated film would have made film-goers afraid to commute home after the screening.

And a more Western film would have put a face to ‘the evil’, eventually, but curiously, Negotiator Mashita never does. I’m not giving anything away by saying the bad guy is never revealed, and that Mashita does his job without the satisfaction of a Hollywood-approved ending, but that’s another interesting cultural difference. Despite the fact that this is a film that would never have been made this way anywhere else, it still works.

Yusuke Santa Maria (yes, that is his name, and actually he’s a comedian by trade) as Mashita is largely responsible for that fact. Just the right balance of deferential and forceful, and surrounded by some very capable actors, including characters from the previous Shakedown instalments, his quiet, slightly geeky charisma carries the film. Not even the television drama-style cinematography can detract from the interest generated by believable characters and the tension of a seemingly impossible situation. Negotiator Mashita might not jump off an exploding rooftop, but you get the impression he would never have to. There’s something to be said for having the gift of the gab.

7.5 Speeding Phantom Trains out of 10.
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