Friday, March 28, 2008

REVIEW: The Beast Must Die - Toru Murakawa (1980)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Yusaku Matsuda is often referred to as the Japanese James Dean. His screen charisma may have rivaled that of Dean’s, but that’s not the reason for the comparison. After a career that spanned 15 years and 24 films Matsuda was ready to branch out. His role as the sadistic yakuza, Sato, in Ridley Scott’s 1989 cop drama “Black Rain” was a perfect vehicle to introduce this talented actor to the rest of the world, and it did, but tragically too late. Matsuda was already battling bladder cancer during the production of “Black Rain” and shortly after filming wrapped he succumbed to the disease. He was only 40 years old.

This isn’t a review of “Black Rain” though. It’s a review of 1980’s “The Beast Must Die” directed by Toru Murakawa, a film through which we can marvel at Matsuda’s performance and dedication to his craft even though the film’s plot falls apart around him.

In 1980 Matsuda had just finished a year long stint on Japanese television playing a private detective in a series called “Tantei Monogatari (Private Detective Story)”. While it had proved wildly popular Matsuda wanted to work on a project that would help him shuffle off his reputation as just an action star, and that project, he felt, was Murakawa’s remake of the 1959 film starring another actor with screen presence to burn, Tatsuya Nakadai.

Matsuda plays Date, a former freelance photojournalist whose experiences in such far flung war zones as Uganda , Lebabnon, and Angola are slowly unhinging his sanity; but to say that Matsuda simply played Date would be an injustice. It was Matsuda’s goal to become Date. He achieved this through a grueling physical transformation, losing 25 pounds of his already thin frame and even having four of his back molars pulled to give his face an even more gaunt appearance. While every moment that Matsuda/ Date appears on screen (including the first nearly wordless 25 minutes) is fascinating to watch it’s still not enough to save the incomprehensible storyline.

Things start out with echoes of Akira Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog” when Date fights and kills a policeman for his gun, a policeman who seems to know Date, but how does he know him? With stolen gun in hand date then bursts into a club run by the yakuza, kills three gangsters and takes off with fistfuls of 10,000 yen notes. To spend on what? Possibly classical music albums because he spends a lot of his time in his fancy apartment listening to them. He also attends quite a few recitals, but how much could some LPs and concert tickets cost? There are other tantalizing clues to what may be going on like the inscription Date discovers scratched inside the but of the stolen gun: “ Prescott , Arizona / Oct. 9th, 1899/ Last shooter T.M.”, or after his first failed attempt at robbing a bank Date bangs out on his typewriter, “Need to get the other.” Who is this T.M. from Prescott , Arizona ? And who is this “other”? these clues keep being dropped and then… well, dropped… with no explanation or follow-up. By the time date befriends an equally anti-social waiter who he school in the art of marksmanship and killing the latter of which he describes as “beautiful demonic moments” I had stopped caring about what “The Beast Must Die” was going on about and I just focused once again on Matsuda’s performance as Date.

So while this film might not have been the classic that Matsuda had hoped it did see a shift towards more critically lauded roles in films like Yoshimitsu Morita’s “Family Game” and Seijun Suzuki’s “Kagero-za”. The end result of watching “The Beast Must Die” and these other films is that you start playing the old game of “What might have been” if Matsuda hadn’t been taken from us so early. Great things I would guess.

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