Ken seems to have come to something of a crossroads in his life. After waking up slumped against a wall, surrounded by soft bags of rubbish, he begins to stumble home. Shuffling like a vampiric zombie he trips over a school boy and crushes the fresh flowers the boy intended to place at the road side. He knows this can’t go on - he needs to make a change in his life. Unfortunately though, Ken’s former work involved being some kind of enforcer for organised crime - no matter how much you want it there is no ‘out’ from that sort of life. It’s not long before his associates hear about his decision and start poking around the garage where he repairs motorbikes alongside a woman who’s the closest thing he has to family. As if that wasn’t enough to worry about, the boy he tripped over suddenly turns up armed with dynamite hoping to take some kind of revenge for the death of his parents who were killed (co-incidentally) by a reckless motorcyclist - the flowers Ken crushed were to be a memorial to them. An orphan himself, Ken attempts to befriend the boy and help him avoid the dark path his conflicting feelings about the death of his ex-policeman father have set him on. For this sort of problem though there’s only ever one solution and it lies in the barrel of a gun.
A curious mix of genres, A Road Stained Crimson plays out like a B-movie Western crossed with a yakuza movie that’s part Seishun Eiga. Movie references abound - our hero is even called Ken Takakura; ‘like the actor’ as he helpfully points out. The actor Takakura, often referred to as ‘The Clint Eastwood’ of Japan, is a real-life tough guy who got his break in the yakuza film boom of the sixties. The film’s Ken, like his namesake, is a brooding presence - stoic yet noble, an honourable man trapped in an unjust world. He knows what must happen won’t be easy but understands that there are no other choices. Ken may long to understand the father (played by Masatoshi Nagase - perhaps best known for his portrayal of Mike Hama) whom he resented while alive and haunts him dead, but knows on an instinctive level that as men they may not have been so different.
The film takes on a very unusual structure with several flashforwards and ellipses, not to mention bookending with quotations from the bible and heavy Christian symbolism. Despite being an extremely modestly budgeted film it has high production values and the sort of grace and elegance you’d associate with a much more expensive venture and experienced director. In fact, according to the Q&A session after the film, this is actually Tatsuhiko Nono’s first feature, and not only that - it was shot in around two weeks! Nono has also been able to enlist an extremely impressive cast filled with veteran actors; aside from the aforementioned Nagase we have one of Japan’s hardest working most versatile performers Tomoro Taguchi alongside Jun Fubuki, Jun Murakami, and in the lead the up-and-coming Hirofumi Arai. A cast to die for in a debut effort, and as might be expected all the performances are of an exceptionally high quality - notably Arai’s who has mostly played supporting parts up to now and who carries this film with an assured hand.
Nono was formerly the manager of alt-rock group Thee Michelle Gun Elephant and the music for this film comes courtesy of the new project of band member Yusuke Chiba - Snake on the Beach. Featuring live performances from the band and their music throughout, the film’s soundtrack is another element that provides its stylish atmosphere. Aside from being aurally pleasing, the score is perfectly pitched in its application and one of the film’s finest assets.
From the Q&A discussion it doesn’t seem that there are any particular plans for this film post-Raindance other than its Japanese premiere in a couple of weeks time. However, the fact that an international English language trailer already exists for this film perhaps suggests that the producers are at least interested in the overseas market (the trailer also seems to have found particular interest in Italy). Hopefully the film will do well at the box office in Japan and go on to circulate more widely in international festivals that might bring it back to these shores before too long. Artful crime films are traditionally an easy sell, and if this film is anything it is artful. I sincerely hope we will see A Road Stained Crimson gain some kind of recognition in the UK as it’s a very interesting film that deserves a wide audience. If this film is anything to go by Tatsuhiko Nono is certainly someone to watch, and his next film will undoubtedly be something to look out for.
A Road Stained Crimson screened at London's Raindance Film Festival on 30 September and 2nd of October.