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A gangster released from prison wastes no time in seeking out the former colleagues he believed betrayed him. He involves former friend Kenji in his increasingly desperate flight from justice.
That is as much coherence as can be gleaned from the plot. The rest is lazy coincidence, and shock-comic set pieces that just do not come off. Tadanobu Asano (Kenji) does his best with flimsy material, though even he can't make a beating of a coffee-shop owner in wide shot look like anything other than two actors rehearsing. Ken Mitsuishi (Yasuo) holds his end up as the gangster, though the over-the-top physicality of the gangsters in the opening scenes is just awful choreography. Kenji and his hospitalized Dad are clearly on the path to trauma - but to what end? The film has no resonance to any deeper social or human concerns. That is not nihilism, it is a lack of development and vision.
An annoying friend of Kenji's turns up in the most ham-fisted contrived way. Yasuo's retarded sister is played as a foot-dragging infant that bears no resemblance to any mental incapacity known to medical science.
The opening shot, a camera seemingly left unhinged from a helicopter, swinging aimlessly like a pendulum, shows from the get-go the lack of - well, care - that went into this production. There are two nice moments - the revelation of Yasuo's second murder by camera movement, and the escape of a rabbit - but you have to imagine that the odds are against even Aoyama ruining absolutely every scene.
I watched this back to back with Oshima's 'Naked Youth'. Oshima paints a bleak vision of post-war Japan, struggling with modernity, intergenerational conflict, and youthful ennui. He anchors it all in the sixties riots and emerging material wealth of the nation. Aoyama tries to deal with similar themes but seems unsure what to do with them. In the end, Helpless looks like a student assignment. It saddens and disturbs me to think that cinema fans overseas may be duped into thinking this 'represents' Japanese cinema.
On the minus side, it does feel a bit contrived, and as it plays out almost in real time (during a single day), with limited cast of characters, it has the feel of a stage play adapted for film.
But this is not a forgettable movie. It contributed to the development of the style from which greater works sprung later, both by Aoyama and others. And Asano's fans naturally have to see it.