Noir's Dark Heart
Hayashi Kaizo's Hama Maiku Trilogy
Volume 9, Issue 1 (Film review 1 in 2009). First published in ejcjs on 25 February 2009.
Maiku Hama Private Eye Trilogy (Dir: HAYASHI Kaizo, DVD 2005)
Cast: Masatoshi Nagase, Shirô Sano, Kiyotaka Nanbara, Yang Haitin, Hou De Jian
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Runtime: 292 minutes
Film noir has always been a genre of moral ambiguity—from Bogart's Sam Spade wrestling with his sense of duty to his dead partner, to Suzuki Seijun's highly-stylised killers in competition, noir has illuminated the knife-edged, fine line between good and evil and as often as not has teetered its heroes over a gritty precipice of personal destruction.
And we've enjoyed it.
Noir has seen periodic revivals in both Hollywood cinema as well as international offerings. Japanese filmmakers, too, are not at all immune to the fascination of this 'hard-boiled' genre, as often in parody as in homage. Parody carries with it great opportunity for innovation while allowing the filmmaker to demonstrate his or her true admiration for and understanding of the subject matter, which is precisely what Hayashi Kaizo has been able to bring to his trilogy of films dedicated to the Mickey Spillane noir hero supreme, Mike Hammer. It is what Hayashi is able to capture of noir as a genre within his humorous homage that makes this trilogy remarkable and valuable, even now, nearly 15 years after its production: these three films serve as precise dissections of the private-detective genre while standing as compelling, rich cinematic examples on their own. And yet, nonetheless, there is at root here a treacherous betrayal that gives a deeply disturbing air to the entire enterprise.
Hayashi released one instalment per year from 1994 to 1996, beginning with Waga jinsei no saiaku no toki (The Most Terrible Time in My Life, 1994), to Haruka na jidai no kaidan o (Stairway to the Distant Past, 1995), and ending with Wana (The Trap, 1996), billed as a 'Hayashi Kaizo Last Film.' All star the terrifically talented Nagase Masatoshi (who has appeared as an assassin in work by Suzuki Seijun, the director of some of Japan's flashiest 'hard-boiled detective' films from the 1960s) as 'Hama Maiku,' a private detective whose clients typically hire him to track down missing persons (or pets, as the case may be), and who has the sterling dream of sending his younger sister, Akane (Ohmine Mika) to a good college. Each film begins with an establishing shot on the 'Nichigeki Cinema,' the theatre in which Hama has his office on the second floor. To get to it, his clients must first buy a ticket to the movie being shown, regardless of whether they'll stay to watch it. Each film also contains Maiku's voice-over self-introduction, in which he tells us his name really is 'Hama Maiku,' and that he was born and raised in Yokohama, the setting for all the films. This is a character who is sympathetic, witty, stylish in good form, and dedicated to his friends, the ensemble characters who recur throughout the trilogy. Among these is the character Joe, Maiku's elderly mentor, and the reason why he became a private detective—and who happens to be played by Shishido Jo, himself the star of many a noir from the 1960s and something of a representative icon for the morally-challenged detective/assassin character 'reinvented' here.
Through numerous nods to those noir films from 30 years earlier—from clothing styles to music to Maiku's car to the use of black-and-white cinematography in the first film, and even to the types of pistols which the gang members use (especially the vicious though cowardly and slightly incompetent Yamaguchi, portrayed by Tsukamoto Shin'ya, himself one of Japan's best and most stylish contemporary directors)—the trilogy carefully reconstructs the seedy world of private detective fiction but infuses it with charm, humour, and a great sense of compassion for Maiku and his colleagues. The cinematography of the trilogy is suitably impressive, often capturing the grainy look of 1960s filmstock while maintaining a playful inventiveness with placement, lighting, and framing. The plots of the three films are also suitably intricate while remaining transparent, engaging the viewer and inviting a type of familiarity calculated to let us 'in on the joke'—and indeed, there are plenty of jokes, from running gags to parodic spoofs of the noir genre to snappy dialogue which creates tremendous texture in the characters, particularly in that of Maiku.
Nagase's Hama Maiku remains definitely the focal point of the trilogy, and necessarily so—his is the character which compels the parody while grounding the films in a deeply respectful humanism. Maiku emerges as a dedicated, honest, and faithful protector, in marked contrast to the police proper who, epitomised in the character of Detective Nakayama (Maro Akaji), stand as corrupt, shoddy, violent, and exaggeratedly worthless. Maiku, for all his time at the races and his generally down-on-his-luck, perpetually-strapped-for-cash persona, has within him that moral core which is itself requisite for all the great noir detectives—despite their time teetering over the brink of a moral abyss, they always manage to pull themselves back at the right moment to do the right thing. Maiku, too, despite the twists the plots take him through ultimately remains true to that unwritten code of the noir detective—uphold the good. That he is able to do so in a typically chipper, almost cavalier fashion, is one of the qualities which makes of Nagase's Maiku a classic noir character and a great homage to the genre.
Until the final thirty minutes of the third film, which bring a dark, disturbing betrayal of everything Hayashi has created till then.
This betrayal centres, of course, exactly around Maiku, and comes from elements of the plot which indeed had been apparent to the astute viewer from the beginning, losing none of its treachery, nonetheless. The plot here again involves the hunt for a 'missng person', with quite a few twists—beginning with Maiku refusing the case, put to him by a black-masked figure asking him to find that figure himself. The plot follows the investigations into the murder of a series of young women, all of whom had been made up by the killer in the same fashion. We are given omniscient knowledge of the 'identity' of the killer from early on—a brother/sister pair, Mikki and Mizuki, played by Nagase Masatoshi and Yamaguchi Tomoko, respectively. But here straight away we are given an unsettling hint, in that Nagase plays dual roles, of both Maiku and Mikki.
This film is more violent than the first two, and the police more obviously corrupt. The camaraderie between Maiku and his colleagues is still warm and sincere, but 'harder'—one of Maiku's closest friends is willing, at a critical moment, to take a bullet for Maiku, leaving him apparently dead in Maiku's blood-soaked arms. The suspicion placed on Maiku by the police is more determined, as well, but all of this works effectively to set up the final 'betrayal' of the film, which reveals that Maiku himself is a delusional schizophrenic quite probably responsible for the murders of the young women.
This revelation is quite powerful, and powerfully handled, set in a dank, dark, foetid underground drainage tunnel—fraught with psychological implications. The action which accompanies it is taught and exciting, but—ultimately—rather than leading to a resolution or to greater sympathy for Maiku, this action leads us to an unsettling place devoid of trust, devoid of hope. Hayashi has gone to great lengths throughout the first two instalments to construct Maiku as a distinctly good character, only, here, to shatter the façade of a stable and morally-secure detective able to weave his way through the underworld of Yokohama and retain his human grace. Instead, we are left with Maiku flailing about, knee-deep in filthy water, searching for a killer with his own face, a killer who disappears into Maiku's psyche only—to what? To lurk? To whither? To re-emerge? Here is the betrayal—we never know. The stability and security of Hama Maiku has been an illusion, simply one half of a character composed of a complex mixture of good and evil. The hard-boiled detective teetering over a moral abyss has—this time—fallen head over heels to its depths.
Without a doubt this is a great series—the smaller, supporting characters are finely developed and return with reassuring regularity, the cinematography is both innovative and recreative of an important historical moment in cinematic genre, the writing and direction are confident and indeed masterful, and the performances, especially of Nagase in the lead, are spot on. And yet, this is a treacherous series, as well, one that sets the viewer up for a fall—almost as if Hayashi had Bogart in his head, saying, over and over, 'You're going to fall, sweetheart, and fall hardÅEΩc' If only he had been able to resist that voice.
Article copyright Timothy Iles.