The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill (Japan, 2021) [NYAFF 2021]

Films based on manga are ubiquitous in Japan but few have qualities that gain the traction to make it onto the radar of global audiences the way the Rurouni Kenshin live-action films have. The closest has arguably been 2019’s well-reviewed The Fable which featured a combination of eccentric characters, quirky comedy, and a pair of attention-grabbing action set-pieces (choreographed by the Jackie Chan stunt team) to bookend the proceedings. For the sequel, The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill, it is a case of more of the same as director Kan Eguchi and the cast return for a film which has a similar structure and feel to the previous installment. 

Once again we are in the company of Akira Sato (Junichi Okada) A.K.A, The Fable. Behind his innocuously naïve and spaced-out persona lies a killing machine who is a legend in the criminal underworld. In the first film, his body-count had become so outrageous, his boss ordered him to keep a low profile in Osaka with his handler Yoko (Fumino Kimura) with strict orders not to kill anyone or anything. Sato now works a part-time job at a design company where his colleagues and newfound friends remain unaware of his hidden life. Yet maintaining this deception soon proves impossible when a former target from Sato’s murky past re-emerges.

A slice of Sato’s backstory opens the film as we get a flashback sequence of him dispatching a line-up of yakuza around Tokyo before it culminates in a final hit marked by an exhilarating series of practical stunts involving a runaway minivan in a car park, our hero clambering from the hood to the trunk while trying to dodge oncoming hazards, all whilst trying to save a teenage girl in the back. Said teenage girl, Hinako (Yurina Hinate), becomes key to the film’s plot as she brings Sato face-to-face with his past and a sense of guilt over his involvement in her paralysis as the two reunite in Osaka, ten years after their dramatic encounter. If this presents an opportunity of self-reflection for Sato, it isn’t taken by the story as her re-emergence serves to lay tracks leading to an action-packed finale.

Like the first film, the middle section is slow going, but the top-notch cast keep proceedings alive. Beyond a little character building that cements some emotional bonds between Sato and Hinako, the film spends more time with a convoluted subplot that takes out a side character from the first film and connects Sato with his antagonist, a seemingly nice guy named Utsubo (Shinichi Tsutsumi) who runs an NPO which acts as a front for scams, extortion, and contract killings. Utsubo’s reasoning for a vendetta with Sato is cliched stuff made engaging by the performance of Tsutsumi, who is so theatrically villainous, it brings flashbacks to his turn in Why Don’t You Play in Hell (2013). Matching him is Okada who brings a pitch-perfect deadpan performance to the socially awkward hitman who loves the schoolboy humour of his hero Jackal Tomioka and his severe case of ‘Nekojita’, a tongue super-sensitive to hot food. At times, it definitely drags and characters barely grow as plotting towards the final battle becomes the focus, but when the finale comes, it is worth the wait.

Action director Makoto Yokoyama replaces the Jackie Chan stunt team for the sequel and brings an astonishing non-stop 20-minute action sequence that takes place in an apartment building covered with scaffolding. Sato turns full Fable as he dons a balaclava and does some insane parkour, hopping between floors and dashing down corridors. He also skitters between the sides of the building while not only taking out a small army of martial artists and grenade-equipped gunmen who are rappelling all around him but contending with booby traps, keeping civilians safe, and evading a sniper. This is pure comic-book movie stuff with bullets, fists, kicks, and bodies flying about in ways that only movies can do. Nonetheless, few films reach this level of experience as tension, excitement, and surprise are drawn out through sheer inventiveness. We are well aware it is real people doing real stunts (with some CG) and the fighting is so ingeniously done that it makes for edge-of-the-seat stuff. If most of this sequel is similar to the first installment, this extended set piece is sufficiently different and exciting to raise the proceedings to another level.

Despite feeling that the film drags in the middle and reuses formulas, it’s actually build up enough emotional energy to become quite moving by the conclusion. That said, this reviewer likely became emotional from having survived that last battle scene which stands as the best action I have witnessed so far this year, so action fans are strongly recommended to watch this familiar but fun sequel.

The Fable: A Contract Killer Who Doesn’t Kill is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival on August 15.