Tak Sakaguchi retiring was a bit of a running joke once upon a time, with news reports flipping sides on a near-daily basis. “Today he isn’t retiring, tomorrow he is”. Unfortunately, the ‘speed master’, friend of Sion Sono, and surprisingly good actor within the martial arts community faded from our screens. He moved his prodigious talents behind the camera, instead opting to ply a series of formulaic if fun action gore movies, akin to less gratuitous versions of Yoshihiro Nishimura’s work (Tokyo Gore Police). Whilst nowhere near as prolific as he was at the turn of the 21st century, Sakaguchi has returned to acting with credits like Sion Sono’s delirious satire of the Japanese film industry, Why don’t you play in hell?, and Yûji Shimomura’s sophomore charge in 2016’s Re:Born – out now on Eureka films.
Re: Born is ground that has been tread countless time before, in fact, Arrow put out a better version of the same thing last year starring Iko Uwais in the Mo brothers’ Headshot. This well-worn plot sees Sakaguchi living a humble life in small-town Japan, looking after a convenience store and a young girl who calls him uncle, Sachi (Yura Kondo). Unbeknownst to everyone in his new life, Toshiro (Sakaguchi) is actually a military legend called Ghost who has killed more people than the entire filmography of Sylvester Stallone combined. For reasons that aren’t even begun to be explained, his former team-mates turn up in town wanting their old companion dead. He has to put his new life to one side and fight back against the small army camped on his doorstep.
There’s the big issue with the film, reasoning. We don’t know why Toshiro has left this world behind, as expressed in him visiting an old friend in the hospital. That old friend took the full brunt of an explosion to save Toshiro’s life, and the guilt of that meant he had to leave that world. I guess that is the case, as literally nothing gets a satisfactory explanation. Like, why are his old team-mates out for his head? Did Toshiro do something to cause trouble? Did he pick a fight first? Does this black ops team allow no-one to leave in case they blab confidential material? There are no clues. And yes, this may be an action film and action is the priority, but when there is negligible action for the first hour, Benio Saeki’s script implies it values character and story just as much as any bone-crunching violence. Exposition may kill many a film, at the same time, sometimes it is essential to connect with the ’empathy machine’s’ that movies are before consideration is spent on anything else.
As vague as everything is, Re: Born is still home to some great performances. Sakaguchi is a great protagonist, as Toshiro, he has a solemn, hang-dog expression etched upon his face. He plumbs depths more significant than merely looking sad, his performances goes further and deeper than that with an expression etched upon his face like one would have if they had their reason for living stripped away. Whether that is the case is only passingly implied through some tense sessions with a therapist. Beyond that, the only really memorable performance comes with a legendary voice. Akio Ohtsuka, A.K.A. the voice actor behind Metal Gear Solid’s Solid Snake appears as the big bad – a role that feels meaty thanks to his impressive set of pipes. I, for one, could listen to him talk all day long, so his villainous monologues are welcomed with wide open arms.
It is a violent martial arts film, so it is probably time I got around to talking about its main feature. Whether it’s by Sakaguchi himself, his peer, Ghost, or by the child soldier who Ohtsuka brought along (Makoto Sakaguchi), there is a lot of throats getting slit in knife-to-knife combat. Martial arts cinema often obeys historic style of armed and unarmed combat, the new military developed martial arts never get a look in. This is primarily because new military arts are designed for purpose over how they look. Zero Range combat has its practitioners hold their arms in a defensive position not too dissimilar to Wing-Chun only in one of their hands is a very sharp, curved blade.
With a hand speed like Tak Sakaguchi’s, there is next to nothing like what we have here in Re: Born. If I was going to describe it in any way, it would be two cats stood on their hind legs trying to rip each other’s throats out. It’s better than sounds, honestly. At least it is for a while, as like I said, this is a combat style designed for purpose over style so the longer it goes on the more repetitive it eventually becomes. There is one scene that will never grow old, however, it involves Sakaguchi walking across a concourse silently fending off attacks from his would-be killer. More of this and Shimomura would’ve been onto a winner
The kill-count in Yûji Shimomura’s film is really quite remarkable and offers something tangible for gorehounds to sink their teeth into. Unfortunately, I don’t count myself as a gorehound so the longer the film went on the more numbed I was by proceedings. There is plenty of good going on here and most of its gravitates towards its star, however when we are talking about a film that fails to give you anything to relate to and possesses a style that becomes tiresome, especially in the over-long forest scene, Re: Born is hard to recommend to anyone other than hardcore Tak Sakaguchi fans. A group that has far fewer members than it did just a short decade ago.