Occasionally you come across a live-action adaptation where it is better not to have read the the source material in advance, so that the adaptation has a fighting chance of standing on its own. MW is one such film – it worked fine as a standalone action film, but once you factor in the source material (the manga MW by Tezuka Osamu) and how much was left out in the adaptation, the second watching renders the film more pedestrian, even disappointing. It has some merits and pretty decent acting, but even as a standalone, it does unfortunately leave much to be desired.
Fifteen years ago on a remote Japanese island called Okino Mafune, a deadly chemical weapon called MW was released, killing all the inhabitants bar two boys who managed to escape. However, the whole incident was covered up. Now adults, Yuki Michio (Tamaki Hiroshi) has become a banker while Garai Yutaro (Yamada Takayuki) is a Catholic priest. Yuki is actually a serial killer on the hunt for those responsible for the MW incident, and Garai, tied to Yuki by their shared past, has become his reluctant accomplice…
I’d not realised there was a manga of MW until I read reviews, so after I watched the film and quite liked it as a standalone, I went and got a copy of the manga. Sometimes reviews can be nitpicky about adaptations of manga/novels, but in this case, I have to say the grievances are pretty much warranted. The manga has the luxury of being able to expand on the Yuki-Garai relationship and paint a more complete picture of the whole MW hunt, and I think the film could have benefited from being stretched into another two-hour follow-up (the way the Nodame Cantabile films were done), in order to ensure that the key points were properly accounted for.
What particularly fascinated me about the Yuki-Garai relationship in the manga is that not only they are homosexual lovers, there’s a rich amount of conflict that comes from just how different their characters are. It was Garai who first abused Yuki’s trust many years ago on Okino Mafune, because child Yuki was so pretty and delicate that Garai, then a petty thug, couldn’t help raping him after they sought refuge in a cave in order to escape from the gas. Since then, it’s evolved into Yuki calling the shots in the relationship, in a push-pull tug of war that’s very intriguing (or sickening, if you aren’t into that sort of thing), especially now that Garai is a Catholic priest and wretched in the knowledge that he had a hand in enabling Yuki’s crimes. Garai despises Yuki for committing those crimes and using people ruthlessly to achieve his aims, and alternates between condemning him and pleading with him to stop, even giving in when Yuki demands for sexual favours. He tries to stop Yuki in any number of ways, but Yuki usually manages to outsmart him, and then they’re back in that push-pull back and forth because Garai simply cannot resist Yuki despite his misgivings and finds it difficult to bring himself to stand in judgment of Yuki.
Yet, Yuki isn’t your average ruthless villain. He can be playful (loves his dog), almost childlike, even coy and sometimes needy when he’s with Garai, and he has the fascinating ability of being able to pull off any feminine disguise because he’s just so pretty (having a brother who’s a kabuki actor also helps). The duality in Yuki is therefore not limited to his character, it extends to his physical appearance – after he kills a female prey, he ends up assuming the woman’s identity as and when it suits his purposes, and gets away with it for the most part. He also has no qualms about seducing both men and women, sleeping with them and toying with their feelings, and sometimes just for the perversity of it.
The manga was published in the 1970s, so some of the themes will seem a little dated (sarin has since overtaken the fictional MW gas), but it’s nevertheless still pretty controversial, if only for the homosexuality aspect, which is an integral part of the story. Yet, the manga doesn’t seek to judge Yuki on his sexual orientation or even his perversity, and Yuki is oddly appealing despite being such a fucked up, destructive character. That takes some doing, especially since Yuki is such a conniving, manipulative bastard who takes pleasure in committing any number of atrocities – murder and dismemberment don’t even faze him – and smug enough to know he can and will get away with things. His childlike actions can be particularly jarring when juxtaposed against his cruelty.
The film takes the bare bones of the manga and turns the story into a straightforward action film. Early on, there was a pretty interesting chase sequence reminiscent of 80s action films (maybe because the scene was set in Bangkok – that city has that sort of reputation in films) that I quite enjoyed. Lieutenant Sawaki (Ishibashi Ryo) sees Yuki (in a not very smart disguise) and realises this man has something to do with the kidnapping case he’s investigating, so he hijacks a taxi to weave his way through Bangkok traffic while Yuki coolly looks on from the comfort of the subway train. Sawaki thinks he’s finally nailed Yuki in the narrow alleyway of a local market, but it turns out Yuki has neatly tricked him and escaped. Unfortunately, it was also one of the few highlights of a disjointed film.
The problem with film MW is that when you really get down to it, quite a number of things don’t add up or make sense. Yuki is a straight-up villain here, depicted as evil without a conscience and a threat to the children of Garai’s church, so Garai is forced to go along with Yuki’s schemes and can’t expose him. Garai feels obliged to Yuki after the latter saved him from the MW gas years back (inhaling some of the gas as a result), but the good priest has a conscience and wants to stop Yuki from committing more crimes. The problem is that Garai doesn’t come across as conflicted enough about his ties to a serial killer and the film does not build up enough of their relationship to exploit that dilemma, so it makes the scene of Garai unable to bring himself to stab Yuki rather lame and anti-climatic. His initial reluctance to turn Yuki in also doesn’t make sense since ultimately he does report Yuki to the police. There should have been plenty of conflict and inner turmoil to mine from their original fucked-up relationship, if only the film had taken even half of what was sketched out in the manga. But all Yamada Takayuki could do was stand there looking sad and passive, because there wasn’t any complexity to film Garai and very little to feel tortured about, so there wasn’t much the actor could work with, which was a pity.
I did like that that film Yuki shows no remorse and actually kind of enjoys killing, but part of that comes from him just saying that he “can’t stop the thirst” that comes from finishing off his prey. There is only one key scene that shows how sadistic he really is – when he sets up Garai to be the unwitting killer of Tachibana, Sawaki’s subordinate, by rigging the gag binding Tachibana’s mouth and neck so that when Garai removes the gag, the artery is cut and blood sprays out like a fountain. Yuki then goes, “oops, you killed him”, in a “I’m totally not sorry” way, while Garai is near paralysed by the horror of it all. The only hint of anything childlike about Yuki was when he flicked off the fingers of his boss Yamashita, who’d been hanging onto the wire fencing on the top of a building, causing the man to fall to his death – Yuki had looked almost innocent, like a kid playing with a toy. Tamaki Hiroshi lost a lot of weight to play Yuki, so he came across as skeletal and intense, a totally lean, mean, evil machine, beautiful and soulless. I think Tamaki did a great job with the very limited material he was given, but in truth, he had literally nothing to work on because there was almost no psychopathic element in film Yuki that would have been an actor’s dream to interpret. Film Yuki just ends up being your average fanatic terrorist with a grudge against the government and aim of exterminating the world. The dilution did neither Tamaki nor the original character any justice. The only remotely surprising thing (if it could even be called a surprise) was that the film preserved the manga ending (which was a touch more ambiguous, but I think we can all agree Yuki survived).
Little things in the film, such as why Yuki wears a nun’s habit when “confessing” his sins to Garai or why they seem more than a touch closer than normal childhood friends and survivors would be, don’t make sense until you read the manga. Also, why the heck would Garai call Tachibana (in a bid to expose Yuki) only mere feet away from where Yuki is supposedly dozing on the sofa? That is just mind-blowingly stupid, since Garai, of all people, should know the kind of person he’s dealing with. The closest hint the film gave on the homosexual aspect was to have Yuki lying on the sofa, recovering from a seizure caused by the MW in his body, and Garai tending to him as a lover would. Yuki lifts his hand and places it on Garai’s shoulder, and Garai clasps Yuki’s arm and says he just wants Yuki by his side and to stop all that killing. I just think it’s a real pity that the film didn’t take advantage of actors who were willing to go the distance to effectively portray their characters (apparently, sponsors of the film objected to the homosexual aspect). Both Tamaki and Yamada had stated that they were willing to act out the homosexual scenes, and I have no doubt they would have done a fantastic job had they only been given the chance to. I’d have loved to see their take on it – certainly it would have given the film Yuki-Garai relationship some much needed oomph and substance.
I found the reporter character, Makino Kyoko (Ishida Yuriko) kinda useless in the film and there was no logical reason why Garai and Yuki would be so quick to trust her word that the MW is still hidden on the island. It made even less sense that Garai would confide in Makino, a virtual stranger, and tell her anything about Yuki. Sawaki was the only supporting character with any sort of logical purpose in the story. Also, the military base invasion by Yuki (with help from the church kids) wasn’t well-executed – just how did Yuki figure out where the MW was hidden and how did he manage to break into such a secret place virtually undetected? And if he had a gun and grenade with him, wouldn’t he have been searched before entering and relieved of them? Even in an action film where good pacing is necessary to keep up the suspense and thrill factor, some things just cannot be skimped on.
On a shallow note, I think while Tamaki did look somewhat like manga Yuki (who is also pretty slender), he could have done with a better hairstyle. Yamada was a definite improvement over the stocky manga Garai – have to say I never quite took to manga Garai’s thug-like face and couldn’t figure out just what Yuki saw in him. Film-wise, there was a very nice (albeit gratuitous) shower scene of Yuki – mmm the rivulets cascading down Tamaki’s lean naked body… I think it’s a pity the film never made use of manga Yuki’s penchant for disguise, it’d have been fun to see Tamaki indulging in various looks and getting slippery with the police hot on his trail.
You can pretty much rely on Ishibashi Ryo to give a solid performance anytime, but I wish the film had played up Sawaki’s face-off with Yuki since it had decided to go the action film route. The cop vs criminal duel is always fascinating, and Sawaki was on his way to becoming a somewhat worthy adversary of Yuki, but the film didn’t exploit a good thing, as usual. I did like the ending scene, where a scruffy Sawaki is relaxing by a cafe when he gets a call from Yuki alerting him of the “rehearsal” concerning big bad Mochizuki. Yuki then says very calmly that this is a statement, that he can kill Mochizuki anytime. I love it when characters who say stuff like that actually have the capability and means to carry out their threats without coming off like a lame duck (as most villains seem to end up turning into). And we all know Yuki is the sort who’d repay even a kindness with evil in spades. Yuki then advises Sawaki to shave before meeting his daughter – a reference to the pair’s earlier encounter where Sawaki lied about having a date with his daughter so as to ‘coincidentally’ run into Yuki and try to get the low down on him. Sawaki realises with a start that Yuki can actually see him and starts looking around, totally on alert. The camera then pans back with an aerial shot to show Yuki standing on the rooftop of an immensely tall building, surveying the cityscape before him, with the ending theme playing. Despite my misgivings about the film, I love this ending, because I love that Yuki survived the plane crash and he’ll get another chance to wreak havoc. I think the open ending worked well here, a little delicious promise of more evil to come, although it’d have a lot more impact had Yuki been a stronger, more psychotic character.
I really like the theme song, MW – Dear Mr and Mrs ピカレスク, by flumpool. I’d not thought much about it when I first heard it, but upon watching a fanvid of the film, I grew to love the song and now listen to it regularly. The guitar riffs are pretty awesome and I love the tempo and melody. Have a listen:
There is a drama tie-in called MW Chapter 0: Akuma no Game, which is set a few years before the film and is about how Yuki toys with another hapless victim played by Sato Takeru. I watched that one as well, but it wasn’t anything to shout about and had too little of the diabolical Yuki to be even fun. To end, I think MW is a credible effort on its own, but unfortunately doesn’t stand out even among the myriad action thrillers out there. It is disappointing as an adaptation of the manga, and rather aggravating when you think of just how much was left out and how much more could have been done to make it a better production overall, especially when you have actors willing to go the distance for their roles. It’s a crying shame, that’s for sure.