With no less than 5 films clumped together, 2015 was a monster year for Shion Sono. I'm amazed at how he managed to keep everything on track, as none of the 2015 films I've seen so far (which is all of them except Hiso Hiso Boshi) felt rushed, unfinished or derivative. Shinjuku Suwan [Shinjuku Swam] is one of the better entries in Sono's 2015 marathon, a yakuza flick with a twist that sets it well apart from its peers. Or what did you expect?
Shinjuku Suwan is no doubt one of Sono's more commercial outings. It's not as childlike as Rabu & Pisu, not as perverted as Eiga: Minna! Esupa Da Yo! and not as gruesome as Riaru Onigokko. On top of that, it's a manga adaptation so it also comes with a built-in audience. It's structured like a pretty typical Yakuza film, with some Crows Zero-like elements thrown in for good measure. It shouldn't be too hard a film to market, the question is whether it will ever get a fair chance in the West.
Having seen my fair share of Yakuza-themed films over the years, it's nice to see the concept applied in a slightly different setting. Instead of dealing with typical Yakuza criminals, Shinjuku Suwan relocates itself to Kabukicho, Tokyo's red light district. Girls are being scouted to work in bars and parlors, two competing scouting companies are at each others throat, doing their best to dominate the market. It's only a slight twist, but it makes for a different enough experience.
Tatsuhiko is a poor, young boy with no real goals in life. One day he stumbles onto Matora, who recruits him to become a junior scout. After a short introduction, Tatsuhiko accepts the job, hoping to do a little good and offer protection to the girls scouted by him. Tatsuhiko has a knack for scouting and quickly becomes Matora's protégé. What he doesn't know is that he is about to become a pawn in the violent struggle between the two competing companies.
Shinjuku Suwan is not Sono's best-looking film, but that doesn't mean it doesn't feature some nice shots and classy scenes. It's just that some part of the film look a bit drab compared to what Sono usually dishes out. It's not that it ever looks bad or unappealing, some scenes just miss that little extra shine. Still, Sono can't go entirely without the occasional visual touch-up and all in all Shinjuku Suwan is another fine-looking film. It's just no Tokyo Tribe or Jigoku de Naze Warui.
The soundtrack was a little disappointing though. I'm usually a pretty big fan of Sono's way of incorporating music in his films, but somehow the music never seemed to suit the film all that well. It was a little too poppy and slick for my taste. Maybe not all that exceptional for a Japanese soundtrack (especially not when it's a manga adaptation), but I missed Sono's usual playfulness and creativity. Sono's soundtrack are always a ton of fun, somehow that didn't come across this time around.
Sono did however assemble a pretty cool cast. Go Ayano is great as the film's lead, Yusuke Iseya shines as his mentor, Yu Yamada equally impresses and Nobuaki Kaneko is downright creepy as one of the competing henchmen. But in the end it's Takayuki Yamada who leaves the biggest impression as Ayano's adversary. A cool, grim and tormented character who spins completely out of control. It's a pretty fun bunch who add lots of flavour to their characters.
With a running time of 140 minutes, Shinjuku Suwan is quite long. It never drags though, as Sono crammed a lot of content in there. There's Tatsuhiko's rise in the company, the rivalry between the competing companies and some romantic drama thrown in to flesh out Tatsuhiko's character. Shinjuku Suwan is three films rolled into one, but Sono is always in control and makes sure the three parts are well balanced and intersect at given intervals.
What Shinjuku Suwan may lack in originality, it makes up for in rock-solid execution. It's not one of Sono's crazier films, it's not a film that opens any portals to new cinematic experiences, but it's a fun, pleasant film with a slight yet definite twist, just big enough to offer a new perspective on a pretty established genre. Sono fans will have little trouble gobbling this one up, others might be better off watching the Crows Zero films and a few Yakuza flicks in preparation.