A police officer has his gun stolen while on duty and when a series of murders are linked by ballistics to it he must track down the person behind them before more people die. Sound familiar? “Stray Dog” directed by Akira Kurosawa, right? Of course… but it could also be “An Obsession” (1997) directed by Shinji Aoyama. Now, it would be wrong to call this a remake of the Kurosawa classic, but this would be the one time when I would use the dreaded term that Hollywood has been trotting around for the past few years: a re-imagining. That’s really what “An Obsession” is; a film that takes the central idea of its predecessor, but then spins it in a totally different direction.
Made just a couple years after the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult the story is updated for a time marked by shock and paranoia. Detective Saga (Ryu Ishibashi) is your classic workaholic. He’s rarely home with his wife, but he’s sees this as the price of good police work. When we first meet him he’s on a stakeout involving a disgraced cult leader. Things go wrong when a surviving spouse of what we can assume is a similar gas attack shoots the cult leader dead and Saga gives chase. For his trouble Saga is shot by the assassin and left in a tunnel for dead. It’s at this point, hovering near death that he hears the distinctive sound of wooden geta (sandals) on the pavement and a shadowy figure steals his gun. After weeks spent in the hospital and sans one lung that had to be removed because of the shooting Saga becomes obsessed with tracking down the mysterious thief and his stolen gun, so much so that he resigns from the police force. That isn’t the only big change for Saga though. His wife, sick of taking second place to her husband’s compulsive work ethic leaves him. Not to sound like a cliché Saga is now a man with nothing left to lose. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)
This is one of Shinji Aoyama’s early films, but for a director who’s films have grown more and more stylistically rigorous (ie: “Eureka” and “Sad Vacation”) we can already see an artistic and somewhat surreal bent in “An Obsession”. Menacing men dressed in white hazmat suits patrol the city streets, but are never explained. The man that Saga is looking for Shimano, is dying of leukemia and is obsessed with the point between life and death, going on long soliloquies about and … and he’s obsessed with his girlfriend whom he shares a terrible pact with.
What I found the most interesting about the film is how Saga gets caught up in the strange world of Shimano and his search for his girlfriend which in some twisted logic mirrors Saga’s own loss of meaning and purpose in his life after losing his wife, his job, and his gun. Can anyone say “emasculation”? Although there have been some heavy-handed hacks who’ve tried to find a phallic significance to Toshiro Mifune’s character losing his side arm in “Stray Dog” the symbolism works far better in “An Obsession”. I guess sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar…