There have been a lot (a lot, a lot) of films based on popular manga, some successful (I’m thinking of “Doing Time”, “Screwed”, “Ichi the Killer”) and some not so successful. Unfortunately I thought one of these was “Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl” (1998) directed by Katsuhito Ishii. To be fair this was the first film by this wildly popular director, but the handling of the quirky romance of Samehada, a yakuza on the run with a load of cash stolen from his own gang and Toshiko also on the run from a pervy uncle suffers terribly from “the cool factor”: an obsession with the visuals and flash instead of using these very things to develop an engaging story.
Now, don’t get me wrong… these “cool factor” moments are really, really cool: the electrifying opening where we’re introduced to each character as psycho-billy music blares, the hilarious confrontation between Tadanobu Asano as Samehada and the squeaky-voiced hitman Yamada (Tatsuya Gashuin) in a public washroom, the knife-wielding yakuza boss, Tanuki (Ittoku Kishibe) who collects metal soda signs, and a bank robbery so inventive that I’m surprised it hasn’t been ripped of by Hollywood yet. These are all pieces, though, and they don’t ever feel cohesive, so that the story ends up turning into one very long chase scene through the woods by caricatures instead of characters wearing some pretty crazy outfits.
Maybe we should set the blame for this film for it not working at the feet of Quentin Tarantino. He’s bred a million imitators of his avant-cool-trash style and it’s no secret that both Tarantino and Ishii have been cinematic influences on each other (Ishii directed the animated O-ren sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1), but also close friends. With Tarantino generously borrowing from both B-films of the 70’s, but more specifically from Asian cinema directors who choose to emulate “Pulp Fiction” or “Kill Bill” end up making a copy of a copy of a copy and the end product looks like a film like “Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl”. It’s really ironic though because I truly believe that there would be very little interest in Japanese and Asian film if it weren’t for Tarantino… but I digress.
“Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl” is for fans of “Funky Forest” and “A Taste of Tea”, films that have shown that once Ishii gives up on trying to tell a linear story like the one he attempted in this debut he has much, much more to offer than watered down manga adaptations.