Director Takashi Miike is renown for developing films that thrust the characters into life threatening situations, whilst dealing with issues concerning basic human tendencies, often accentuated to graphic levels, guaranteed to provoke conversations between some people, and sheer unnerving suspense amongst others. Shield of Straw is no different, asking its audience questions regarding the differences between vengeance and justice, while positioning viewers to contemplate how far they would go to protect a monstrously psychopathic individual, depicting society in general as a collection of individuals, who, upon the promise of economical gratification, are willing to inexplicably forgo moral conventions.
These questions and ideas are forced upon the viewer by character Takaoki Ninagawa (Tsutomu Yamazaki), one of the richest, and at the same time, oldest, men in the country. The murder of his seven year old granddaughter at the hands of Kunihide Kiyomaru (Tatsuya Fukiwara), who had only recently been released from prison for a previous crime at the time of the incident, causes him to take matters into his own hands three months later, after police appear unable to apprehend Kiyomaru, who is currently on the run. The promise of one billion yen to whomever kills Kiyomaru causes a triumphant chain reaction, that leads the murderer to surrender himself over to police custody, upon realization he is unable to protect himself.
Kazuki Mekari (Takao Osawa), a member of the security police, who we discover early into the movie is still coming to terms with the loss of his wife, a back-story that is conveyed during the film, is hired by section-chief Ooki (Hiroatro Honda) to escort Kiyomaru to Tokyo police, where he will be released into the custody of the prosecution. Those also brought on to assist in escorting the criminal include fellow security police member and single mother Atsuko Shiraiwa (Nanako Matsushima), Takeshi Okumura (Goro Kishitani), Kenji Sekiya (Masato Ibu) and Masataka Kanbashi (Kento Nagayama). Early into the film, the threat posed by the police force themselves is powerfully executed, those providing protection to the murderer continuously suspecting one another of betrayal, and despite money initially been the cause for such worry, later, themes including honor, personal values, vengeance, and doing what is morally right, begin to plague those involved.
Although the film presents viewers with the quandary, who are we to trust if the police themselves are criminal, Kiyomaru is far from a sympathetic character, his behavior, and complete lack of empathy, making him a narcissistic villain that causes even the audience to wonder whether protecting such a vile criminal is worth it. At the same time, Ninagawa is equally complicit as a villain, his actions causing a significant number of casualties that he himself appears unaffected by. On a side note, though the formalities of Japanese culture are well imbedded into the feature, this viewer was occasionally left wondering if characters with blackened hearts truly deserved the respect they were given, a question additional viewers may ponder.
Moving on, the movie begins with such intensity, which is especially due to the visual flare, including a massive assortment of police vehicles escorting the prisoner, alongside another scene involving a truck, barreling at high speeds towards the lead characters, a mixture of gun fights and an explosion that can only be described as outstanding, grabbing hold of the viewer's attention. The idea of having 125 million possible suspects out to assassinate the antagonist makes for a thrillingly anxious climate, whereby the threat could appear from anywhere, this notion being continuously attended to over the feature's duration. Where the introduction seemed to have an over-reliance on filling the screen with vivid entertainment, as the film progresses, more isolated environments begin to suspend the viewer in a very different atmosphere, the intensity of dialogue between characters as themes concerning greed, corruption and death begin to swell to almost cataclysmic levels mean the actors, rather than the affects, attend to the atmosphere.
Environments, from sprawling metropolis, outer city developments, to countryside roads, make for a variety of locations, the soundtrack adding to this, immersing the audience in either the excitement, or the gripping character drama, though at the same time, the scenes where only the diegetic ambiance can be felt, are equally intense. On other occasions, the soundtrack appears to become too impacting, the orchestral themes gradually becoming louder, signifying a thunderous event, that never actually occurs.
Although originally excitingly fast, the slower pace towards the end is potentially less effective, despite the tension remaining satisfactorily convincing, however, the initially surprising atmosphere, where threats could come from anywhere, begins to instead be replaced with a slight degree of predictability, as the number of threats begin to increasingly narrow. The ending will no doubt cause audiences to question if justice really is dealt, and though the film efficaciously grapples with viewer's emotions, it is uncertain if sadness or anger was the intended feeling Mr Miike wanted to garner.
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