10 March 2020 | imagevulture
rare view into Tokyo's underbelly
Shinjuku Swan, 2015, directed by Sion Sono based on the manga Shinjuku Swan.
Shinjuku Swan set in the seedy Kabukicho red-light district of Tokyo's Shinjuku, is a gritty yet somewhat light-hearted drama with comedy elements. Visually and tonally it feels like a gritty American 70's movie, especially Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, After Hours, King of Comedy...) Greatly helped from key location scenes actually shot in Kabukicho, Shinjuku, but the story and characters often slip into cliché archetypes - not surprising since the source material is a manga. I am not familiar with the manga so I'm not in a position to compare the movie to the manga.
While there are more than a few movies set in the sex industry - prostitution, trafficking - Shinjuku Swan picks an oddball and probably little known niche to those outside Japan - the world of SCOUTS. Young men who as a job scout women on the street in Shinjuku to work in various levels of Tokyo's red-light industry. The protagonist is Tatsuhiko (Go Ayano) , a young man from the boonies with nothing to lose. He's a simple guy, good heart, hard head, lots of energy which he doesn't mind using to get into fights. Tatsuhiko is spotted by young but veteran scout, Mako (Yusuke Iseya) who takes him in and makes him his underling.
You think the movie will be Tatsuhiko story, maybe his internal conflict with his core morals conflicting his job but it quickly turns into a movie about "palace intrigue" as different Yakuza factions who control the scouts jockey for power. We are introduced to many characters and it becomes a Gangs of New York (but more cartoony) tapestry of Machevelliam characters and how everyone plays their cards.
The first half focuses mainly on the men in this world. The second half introduces female characters, classic tragic characters who become fodder in the Kabukicho meat market.
Probably because it is based on a manga it feels much more like an American TV pilot, setting up a big cast of characters with long story arcs than a self-contained feature film. There is a Shinjuku Swan 2 which I have not seen yet.
To be honest, even though Tatsuhiko (Go Ayano) is set-up as the movies protagonist I felt Mako (Yusuke Iseya) was a much more interesting character and much more fascinating actor. But all the actors fit their part and visually it feels "right" with plenty of fight scenes.