Freesia: Bullets Over Tears



Hong Kong International Film Festival

HONG KONG -- Manga often are the best place for Japanese readers to find truly critical, contemporary literature, which might account for its omnipresence and popularity. Based on the manga of the same name, "Freesia: Bullets Over Tears" is simultaneously a stylized actioner and thoughtful look at the individual in modern Japan.

"Freesia" is going to have a built-in audience in Japan and other parts of Asia. The production quality and intellectual tone could make it a good bet for limited release overseas for a gutsy distributor. The festival circuit that has embraced sad, disconnected youth on the run in the past ("Dead Run") will do likewise here.

At first glance, the film comes off like a twisted hybrid of "Battle Royale" and "The Most Dangerous Game." In a near-future dystopian Japan, an Edo-period custom has been re-enacted that allows for state-sanctioned revenge killings. Retaliation agencies have sprung up that provide the killer and a bodyguard and do all the required paperwork. There's a caveat that states the victim/criminal must be warned of an action against them so that they can defend themselves.

The film begins 15 years earlier when a young army cadet unwittingly is involved in an experiment involving a Fenrir bomb. The cadet and his superior officer abandon a group of orphans on a hillside just as the bomb goes off. All but one -- a young girl -- are frozen instantly and later die. As the current story begins, the cadet now is a young man, Kanou (Tamayama Tetsuji), who is just starting a job at a retaliation agency. As a result of the bomb blast, he has been left with an inability to feel anything -- physical or emotional -- and a vivid memory of the little girl. Guiding Kanou through his first day out on the hunt for a drunk driver is Mizoguchi (Miura Masaki), a sadist who is in the job because he likes it.

Their supervisor is a young woman, Higuchi (Tsugumi), who also was at the bomb site. She, too, is left with a dearth of feeling but to a lesser degree. While she goes about her job, she also is looking for the people responsible for the bombing and her resulting state. She tracks down the wheelchair-bound Gen. Iwasaki (Suma Kei) and eventually the older cadet, Toshio (Nishijima Hidetoshi). Toshio ran away from home and now works as a mechanic. He also is haunted by the memories of that day.

Kanou is a loner in the classic Japanese manga tradition: slightly retro, handsome in an androgynous way and supremely good at his job. His only real challenge comes from the legendary Ghost (Oguchi Hiroshi), a bodyguard who forces Kanou to start dealing with his own ghosts. Toshio is a loner by choice whose tendency to defend the underdog wins him the loyalty of Shibazaki (Takehara Pistol). Higuchi is all business and doesn't even interact with her co-workers.

Kanou, Higuchi and Toshio make up the core of "Freesia," and it's their memories that carry the film's themes. Kanou is unable to connect with anyone. Higuchi wants to, but she is terrified at the idea. Toshio is able to but is so scarred by the event that binds them that he simply won't. While each is completely detached on the surface, each is equally lonely or despairing on the inside -- frozen -- making them representative of urban life right now.

What could have been a purely stylized revenge thriller is saved by the leads' performances. Tamayama ("Nana") and Nishijima ("Dolls") are a study in complementary opposites. Tamayama's blankness -- which could have easily devolved into vapidity -- is balanced by Nishijima's intensity. Tsugumi ("Hush") straddles the two as a woman trying to move from one extreme to the other. Each needs one of the others to save him/herself but might not realize just how much. How they do makes up the bulk of the second half of the film, when Higuchi bends the rules and puts out a fraudulent hit on Toshio.

"Freesia" does indulge in some of the flashy visuals, chiefly Mototaka Kusakabe's editing, that you expect from a live-action manga adaptation ("Ichi the Killer," "Oldboy"), but not to the point that they detract from the fundamentally human story. This is a quiet, internal film with moments of gunplay. Director Kumakiri Kazuyoshi burst onto the scene in 1997 with the offending, unraveling society film "Kichiku," and here he reins in the over-the-top gore and polemics to create a focused, subtle exploration of disassociated Japanese society.

An Office Shirous, Bandai Visual, Toho, Sony PCL production
Director: Kumakiri Kazuyoshi
Screenwriter: Ujita Takashi
Based on the manga by: Matsumoto Jiro
Producers: Kubota Suguru, Matsuda Hiroko
Director of photography: Inomoto Masami
Production designer: Kozumi Koji
Music: Matsumoto Akira, Akainu
Costume designer: Ogawa Kumiko
Editor: Mototaka Kusakabe
Kanou: Tamayama Tetsuji
Higuchi: Tsugumi
Toshio: Nishijima Hidetoshi
Mizoguchi: Miura Masaki
Shibazaki: Takehara Pistol
Yamada: Emoto Tusuku
Sumikawa: Kokami Shoji
Ghost: Oguchi Hiroshi
Gen. Iwasaki: Suma Kei
Running time -- 102 minutes
No MPAA rating