The Most Terrible Time in My Life

Directed by: Kaizo Hayashi
Year: 1993
Running Time: 92 minutes
My rating for this film: 7.5

With his shades perched loosely on his nose and a cigarette dangling precariously from his mouth like a suicidal man leaning over a ledge, Maiku Hama goes about his business of being a private investigator in this homage to the pulp film noir's of the 1950's. Though set in contemporary times (1993), the film has all the accoutrements of the fifties from being shot in retro black and white (with the exception of one sudden red blood splotch of violence), to slicked back hair and big sprawling American cars including Hama's 1954 Metropolitan convertible. Born at the tail end of that decade, Director Kaizo Hayashi grew up with affection for those years as well as the hard-boiled films to such an extent that he earned a private investigator license and owns the Metropolitan.

Maiku Hama is the Japanese name for the quintessential tough guy from the fifties, Mike Hammer. Spillane's anti-hero was a near psychopathic brute dispensing his own version of justice to the "scum" and "commies" that crawled in the sewers of Los Angeles in such books as "I, The Jury and "Vengeance is Mine". Hammer has received numerous film treatments that over the years have slowly mellowed his image. In the classic noir "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955) Hammer is little more than a thug who stumbles on an atomic bomb, later the more urbane Armand Assante played the character in "I, the Jury" (1982) and the final emasculation of the character takes place in the TV show in which Stacy Keach portrays him with a kind twinkle in his eye. Spillane also played his own character in the 1963 "Girl Hunters".
Maiku Hama is a far cry from the original - played by the slender Masatoshi Nagase (best known to Western viewers for his laconic character in Jarmusch's "Mystery Train", but with a very lengthy filmography in Japan) - he is a bit of a misfit who spends much of the film adorned with bandages from the various beatings he takes. Unlike the typical Hammer who is irresistible to women, there are none in Maiku's life and a male replaces the traditional femme fatale role. Director Hayashi is of Japanese-Korean descent and he sets this story in the milieu of "foreigners" in Japan where Maiku finds a niche looking for missing non-Japanese that the police can't be bothered with. This Yokohama detective has his office in a movie theater that plays old classic American films and the projector moodily throws light and shadows across his desk. To get access to him a client has to buy a theater ticket much to their amazement and when one fellow protests the unfairness of this, the elderly proprietress tells him he should watch the movie because everyone needs to see films.
While playing cards with friends, Maiku comes to the aid of a Taiwanese waiter, Yang, who is being insulted and bullied by a yakuza tough, but instead of  knocking the yakuza around, Maiku has his own finger sliced off that then has to be retrieved from a dog's mouth. This begins a friendship between Maiku and the grateful Yang that leads Maiku into the murky dangerous world of foreign gangs in Japan. Yang asks Maiku to look for his brother who has been missing since he came to Japan from Taiwan two years previously. As Maiku digs deeper with the assistance of his friend and cab driver Hoshino (Kiyotaka Namba - who stars in those wonderful Japanese Bollywood films), he comes to realize that the brother isn't missing - he has simply changed names and become a Japanese national. And joined the Black Dog Gang as their number one killer. By doing this though the brother has betrayed his old Taiwanese gang and they want him dead. He did this for love (Kaho Minami), but that doesn't change things.
Though the film begins as almost a send up of the genre with a number of amusingly sly moments, it eventually turns completely serious and deadly and is a very enjoyable and involving noir. Hayashi was to follow this up with two sequels: Stairway to the Distant Past and The Trap. Some of his other films include Zipang (1992) and Cats Eye (1997).

The Stairway to the Distant Past

Directed by: Kaizo Hayashi
Year: 1995
My Rating: 7.0

Over ten years ago I watched The Most Terrible Time in My Life (1993) and though I very much enjoyed it, I never followed up on the sequel till now. The Most Terrible Time introduces us to Maiku Hama, a low rent Japanese detective whose office is above a movie theater where his customers have to buy a ticket in order to see him. His name is a play on American tough guy icon Mike Hammer from Mickey Spillane but Hama is as far from Hammer as you can get. Instead of doing the beating, he is usually the object of the beating. Portrayed by Masatoshi Nagase, who is best known to Western viewers for his character in Jarmusch's "Mystery Train", Hama is a skinny young man who has an affection for all things America 1950s with his clothes, sunglasses and cars. The Most Terrible Time was shot in black and white as a nod to the noir films of the 1950's, but right at the end it suddenly explodes into color and this one takes it from there.

Hama is still above the theater which is advertising Cinemascope and the film playing there is in fact The Most Terrible Time in My Life. To a full house! Hama isn't doing well professionally - cases are rare, his car is taken by debt collectors forcing him to use a bicycle and he is down to 1,500 yen. He has taken care of his younger sister ever since their mother deserted them years before and their father is unknown. So he is thrilled when a woman comes in and asks him to look for Marie - which turns out to be a little dog. But this is Yokohama - beneath the stunning cherry blossoms is a festering rot - a dirty city dominated by the Yakuza and where the cops are not much cleaner. In Most Terrible Hama had to deal with Taiwanese gangsters but in this one they are home grown and even deadlier.

A cop comes to him and pressures Hama (by telling him he will plant drugs on him) to investigate the White Man. The White Man is a murky mysterious figure who has run the waterfront for decades and anyone who has tried to either investigate or take power has ended up dead. But this is a cop you don't say no to. On top of this the long gone mother has returned and has gone back to work in a sleazy burlesque joint where men get nose bleeds as she dances. Hama wants nothing to do with her, but the past comes back to smack him in the face. The film loses its focus at times and in particular at the end goes a bit off the tracks in a game of Russian Roulette, but is at the same time quite compelling.

The White Man is played by veteran actor Eiji Okada who starred in Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Woman of the Dunes and was to pass away not long after this film was shot. Director Shin'ya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo, Snake in June, Nightmare Detective) plays one of the two gangsters who thinks it is a good idea to challenge The White Man and Jo Shishido is Hama's friend who urges him to leave Yokohama before he is killed. The cop is played by Akaji Maro who had a part in both Kill Bill I and II as Boss Ozawah. The director of this film is Kaizô Hayashi and in the following year he directed the third film in the Maiku Hama Trilogy, The Trap (Wana) and I plan on seeing that one shortly.

The Trap

Directed by: Kaizo Hayashi
Year: 1995
My Rating: 7.5

Aka - Wana

Maiku Hama returns for the third and last time on the big screen though there was a TV series in Japan based on this character in 2002 called Shiritsu tantei Hama Maiku. This is a very different type of film from the first two in which Hama reluctantly found himself involved in the affairs of the Yokohama Yakuza. This one is possibly influenced by the Japanese horror trend that was just starting up - as it is at times creepy as hell and psychologically murky. It seems to ask questions about identity - do we understand who we are, are we hiding it under levels of psychosis, how many identities do we have inside us. It is both weird and intriguing when you think back on it and you aren't sure if the director is just playing games with your head or if there is something else going on here.

Young women all made up and wearing pretty dresses are found in public places like park benches or on a Ferris wheel quite dead looking like preserved dolls. A serial killer is knocking them out with a drugged syringe and then a few days later they show up. Since the last film Hama (Masatoshi Nagase) has fallen in love with a mute woman who is a Christian. When a man in a mask with a hideous face underneath asks Hama to find a man, Hama turns him down. Not much later this man tries to inject his girlfriend but Hama saves her. But when another victim shows up, his fingerprints are found on her necklace and Hama is on the run from the cops. How he wonders did his fingerprints get on the necklace.

The man in the mask seems to be in cahoots with a woman and a brain damaged young man that she takes care of in the most intimate of ways. They are all crazy as shit. Or are they? Or are there three of them? When you realize that the young man is also played by Masatoshi Nagase it leads you down paths of thought that are never answered as little clues or perhaps red herrings are scattered along the way. How much of this is real or dream or nightmare? In particular the ending which is mystifying and chilling.

All the characters just seem off as if we are getting echoes of them - his girlfriend who is incredibly passive to a martyred degree, the cop who oddly keeps helping him, the woman in the hospital for an inexplicitly long time, his bright cheery friend played by Jo Shishido again, the other friend who goes on the run with him. It is very dark for the most part though from time to time director Kaizo Hayashi lightens it up out of the blue that feels unreal. It is the type of film I should probably revisit to see if I missed things along the way - I am sure I did - but I most likely will not.