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Unlucky Monkey (1998)
Director: Sabu

review by Richard Bowden

Unlucky Monkey (aka: Anrakk� monk�) was the third film by writer and director Hiroyuki Tanaka (alias: 'Sabu'), who, over seven features, has established himself as one of Japan's leading comedic directors, establishing a growing reputation overseas. Eschewing the over-familiar repetitions of Nippon's best-known big screen humorous series (the interminable but vastly popular Tora-San), or the startlingly prodigious range of a director like Takashi Miike, Tanaka has created an immediately recognisable filmic universe of his own. Characteristically based around such concerns as the calamities of fate, the humorous treatment of Japanese social interactions, and a typically satiric treatment of yakuza, his stories often feature surreal, casually-cruel chains of events, when characters are tossed and turned about on fate's whims before being left to an uncertain future. Plots are intertwined; coincidences are common, ironies rife. Add this to a firm sense of cinematic pacing (often on a low budget) and a willingness to disrupt reality to achieve artistic purpose, and you have a director whose quirky films can be addictive.
   At the heart of Unlucky Monkey are the fated perambulations of small time crook Yamazaki, played by Shinichi Tsutsumi. Tsutsumi is already an established member of Sabu's repertoire of actors, having previously appeared in Postman Blues (aka: Posutoman burusu, 1997), Dangan Runner (Dangan Ranna, 1996) and perhaps most memorably, in the stylish Monday (2000). Expert in expressing stunned disbelief, in the present film he spends a good deal of time running or shuffling along in monologue, with words which range from his suggestions of the true nature of bravery at the start of the film, onto pathetic self-exoneration before ending with mute foreboding and resignation.
   Yamazaki's attempt to rob a bank with a colleague is bungled from the start when he discovers that similarly clad villains have just raided the place. After acquiring the loot by default while on the run he then, almost as accidentally, commits a stabbing. At the close of a memorable opening sequence and these two momentous turning points in his hero's fortune, Sabu fills the screen (in English) with the main title, slowly scrolling up the name. Far from being 'lucky', after acquiring such a large windfall Yamazaki will eventually wish himself dead. And, like a monkey on rope, he is obliged to go where his master - fate - leads him. Connected by cause and effect to Yamazaki's woes is the subplot featuring a trio of second-rate yakuza, also responsible for an accidental fatality, their increasingly bumbling attempts to save their skins, and those other gangsters after them. Eventually the two main threads combine in a showdown finale.
   It's a film full of crazy coincidences and ironic recognitions: Yamazaki's initial dealings outside the bank and following encounter with the girl, then the peculiar chain of events by which he ends up holding her funeral urn in a hearse for instance, or the passing of the ubiquitous ski-mask from various characters; the unconscious burial of loot and yakuza chief side by side, and so on. At one point, in a scene oddly reminiscent of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, Yamazaki escapes his persecutors off the street, blundering into a resident's meeting. At the gathering he delivers an impromptu and impassioned speech about the collapse of the Japanese dream and the destruction of the environment. A lot of this is satirical and farfetched (though it does set up a memorable dream sequence). Sabu doesn't care and, ultimately a sympathetic viewer might judge, it doesn't matter. The director is not after a 'sensible' recreation of reality. His films' narratives regularly create an outrageous momentum of their own, one in which strange logic becomes its own justification. The tableau of main characters assembled at the end of Unlucky Monkey is both thus crazy and pithy at the same time - a bizarrely formal confrontation that's miles away from the regular climatic shootouts of Asian crime dramas.
   There are other remarkable scenes. Standout is Yamazaki's stunned encounter with the just self-disinterred Yakuza, a figure who is seemingly just as un-killable as the hero, edging down the street. Or the memorable bar scene, where an assassin first shoots himself accidentally in the groin, then drags his dying body bloodily across the floor to try and hit his targets that by now are cowering in the toilet. Such a moment, full of pitch-black humour, anticipates the gore of Ichi The Killer (2001), a film in which Sabu appeared as an actor.
   For those who have yet to discover Sabu, Unlucky Monkey is as good a starting point as any, although it lacks some of the polish of his other films. For those who already relish the peculiar world of such an individual writer-director then it will prove unmissable. One dreams of Sabu one day directing a major talent like the deadpan Takeshi Kitano - whose own efforts at comedy such as Getting Any? (aka: Minnâ-yatteruka!, 1995) have been uneven, when his Keatonesque world vision would surely reach new levels. In the meantime, this little gem can be strongly recommended.
Unlucky Monkey

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