Ambition Without Honor

3 out of 5

Directed by: Takashi Miike

Going through director Takashi Miike’s earlier films, there are some stark contrasts between those heralded as more iconic, original works, and those that were still reminiscent of the fomenting skills of a V-cinema work-for-hire director; movies that made a statement versus movies that got the job done.  With such a lengthy resume of movies, made at a brisk pace, it’s not necessarily surprising that Miike would bounce back and forth stylistically while developing his “voice,” and, if anything, it was that embrasure of accepting any ol’ project that came his way that likely helped him to better structure his ability to make any ol’ project into into his own.  And it can be interesting seeing all that evolve, surely.

Ambition Without Honor is one of the first Miike flicks I’ve watched, though, in which we see this flip-flopping seemingly happen mid film, as though he just dang ran out of inspiration at one point, looked at his watch, and realized he needed to wrap things up.

The plot is certainly straight forward, but has a lot of archetypal Miike elements: the young Tetsuya (Yūta Sone) is promised a made spot in the yakuza if he offs the boss of a rival clan.  He does so, does his jail time, but upon release, finds that the two clans are now trying to make peace; bringing Tetsuya into the fold doesn’t encourage that.  Single-minded in his desire to be a criminal, Tetsuya keeps pushing, going as far as essentially starting his own mini crew to wreak havoc, building up to disastrous results.  Tetsuya is very much the “rootless” character Tom Mes likes to point out as a common thread in Miike movies, and his rejection, in a way, of his own family – oddly proud of his mother’s death; frustrated at the abandonment of his father – fuels his ignorance in his pursuit, keeping him rather childlike in the face of a lot of violence.  Others follow his passion with a similar disdain for logic.

While a lot of Miike’s yakuza movies can, at a certain remove, be described similarly simply, it’s often their focus that makes that description less simple, veering away from plotty double crosses and dramatics for side details that subvert the usual blood-letting and shooting celebrations.  AWH fiddles with that, but it’s notable more for its construction, and how it’s shot: the first hour is, to me, upper tier work for Miike, showing off his insightful editing and stitching together of scenes with some amazing camerawork that floats between in-the-moment handheld and artfully framed static shots.  He incites great performances from his actors, making Tetsuya’s dull-headed plight into one in which we feel immersed, and want to watch; his wake makes the usual yakuza scenes of clan squabbles have a sense of frenzy, elevated by the mentioned film techniques.  When some connections between characters are drawn, it feels relevant and not just done as a twist.  The movie thrusts ahead with a lot of vim – Tetsuya gets brutally beaten quite often, and even at a low budget, it’s imbued with a lot of anger and energy – and then there’s this clear point, at about an hour in, when that all just stops.

There’re no longer any interesting scene juxtapositions.  Dialogue and interactions drop their sense of import and become boring back-and-forths to shout invectives or genericisms.  The camera stops being motivated and just sits there, watching.  And we just go about our business wrapping things up, and setting up an inevitable sequel.  It’s a gigantic whiplash; there’s no transition between these styles.  The movie is really good – like it started being up there with Miike classics, for me, and I was wondering why it was overlooked – and then it’s super generic, and pretty boring, and very impersonal.

Toshiaki Tsushima provides a pretty awesome jazzy, new-agey score throughout.