Howling (Japan, 2022) [OAFF 2022]

There is no rule stating that a film must have a hero is who is likeable or successful. There doesn’t even have to be a hero. Such is the case with Howling, a neo-noir by writer/director M Haris Sheikh wherein the story’s sad-sack “hero” operates with self-aggrandising sophistry that ultimately undermines his quest to be a leading man.

Our so-called hero is Ryuji (Ichiro Hashimoto), a 40-year-old who has no woman, no stable job, and no intention of living in reality, as witnessed when the film opens by showing him sexually harassing one of the part-timers who works with him at a karaoke parlor. He claims he is “rescuing” her from another colleague, but as the woman argues, Ryuji has stalked her for quite a while. When he explains to a much younger job interviewer a couple of scenes later that his firing was all about appearances, he glosses over the reality.

Far from being a grand fantasist in the vein of Billy Liar, Ryuji’s behavior in these early scenes illustrates how everyday seedy, self-deceptive thinking gets him through life as he avoids dealing with his failings and cowardice. With little thought for others or room for self-reflection, he continues to fool himself. This is a weakness that two femme fatales prey upon.

Their entries into the story are innocuous enough. First comes an invitation to a junior high school reunion which leads to Ryuji meeting with Chisato (Sanae Kotani), his first love who he obsesses over. Next is a coffee shop rendezvous with Akane (Yukino Takahashi), a beautiful university student he became acquainted with on a dating app. Far from being the fast dames that Dashiell Hammett describes in his hard-boiled detective novels, Sheikh re-imagines this archetype as everyday women in desperate circumstances. Chisato’s husband and Akane’s father are physically abuse and both are so desperate that they turn to Ryuji. All it takes to put him on a path to killing their abusers is 10 million yen and a gun.

A strong start ensures that one can see his line of thinking – if society won’t give him an honest chance to change his life, crime will, and he will get two beautiful women in the process. His fantasist tendencies emerge in a few scenes where we see him prancing around with the gun pretending to kill people with glee, but soon bathos strikes as his cowardice curtails his convictions and he constantly cancels the killings at climactic moments. He ain’t no Travis Bickle, shall we say.

Thus, the film turns into a bleakly farcical character study as the main protagonist’s ego allows himself to be caught in a Coen-esque comedy of errors by women who see him as a tool for escape. A certain sense of schadenfreude strikes at seeing Ryuji’s hero fantasies stripped away to reveal his cowardly core as, despite being given the tools and two truly reprehensible targets, his lack of conviction leads to failure. Dialogue with Chisato reveals that this has been a lifelong occurrence. So, beyond uncomfortable laughter, the film generates some tension as it seems that if Ryuji is to break the cycle, it has to happen at an extreme moment of violence. It does. The audience may be primed for something climactic, but Howling manages to surprise in an entirely ironic way that will leave jaws on the floor.

Ensuring that we stay invested in Ryuji’s character is Hashimoto, who establishes a level of pathos by showing a meeker, more pitiable side to his character beyond the more comedic and breathtakingly reckless action-star wannabe he turns out to be. Making the film more than a malevolent pity party devoted to a maladjusted male are the two women in the story who are as complex as Ryuji and act as a counterweight to his delusions. Both Takahashi and Kotani deliver credible performances that go beyond victimhood. Their characters are flawed, struggling, but show agency by making moves when needed, and the actors change gears with skill. Both have character arcs that are instigated by looking for a hero, as evidenced by their banter about manga heroes and super powers. However, they also have deliciously dramatic moments in which they manipulate the leading man and eventually take matters into their own hands when Ryuji shows signs of failure. Thus, the film gives a certain life to the phrase, “men believe in fantasy, women in action.”   

Sheikh captures the darkness of this story by presenting a city swathed in shadows. Suitable framing and editing place the events in environments dominated by concrete overpasses and their incessant traffic, bleak windswept riverside spots and the high-rise apartment tower where the rooms constitute chambers where macabre secrets are exposed. These are entirely suitable environments for characters to crash together, with their respective delusions and desperate circumstances being cleverly interwoven by Sheikh and compellingly performed by the cast.

Howling was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 13 and 17.