End of the Night (Japan, 2011)
End of the Night is an offbeat Japanese noir that marks the directorial debut of Daisuke Miyazaki following an apprenticeship under Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Although he dives into genre territory after gaining professional experience on his mentor’s unemployment study Tokyo Sonata (2008), Miyazaki’s first feature is also concerned with Japan’s ruptured social-economic fabric, considering familial dysfunction and financial hardship within the context of a crime thriller. At first glance, Akira (Kuniaki Nakamura) looks like any other disenchanted Japanese urbanite during a prolonged recession. He sits around his apartment, absent-mindedly watching television while eating ice cream or watching television, briefly interacting with the landlady who pays a visit regarding the late payment of his rent. Although he may appear to be your average freeter, Akira actually has a source of income: he is an assassin, having been trained by Tamegoro (Masayuki Shionoya), the professional killer who murdered his parents, then raised Akira as his son. Induction into Tamegoro’s assassin group was not easy as, at the age of fifteen, Akira could not kill his first target, leaving Tamegoro to take care of the business at hand. However, he eventually adapted, and at the age of twenty-five is a trusted member of the crew, although the shadowy world of contract killing has also been affected by the unstable economy. Visiting the Pink Rose brothel, Akira encounters downtrodden but kind-hearted prostitute Yukine (Nami Komiyama), who reminds him of the girl he failed to kill ten years earlier, leading to a reconsideration of his profession.
Miyazaki nails the noir urbanism with lonely streets, seedy alleyways, passing commuter trains, a supermarket with a perverted security guard, and a beating under the railway tracks that echoes Tokyo Drifter (1966). There are also memorable details such as Akira’s old fashioned home telephone that is kept in a desk drawer, ringing whenever he is required to carry out a hit, or the cash that he stashes in books for when times get tough. It’s a stylistic milieu, but one that is grounded in realism through references to Japan’s economic struggles, as characters turn to the dark side of the city experience due to the fall-out of Japan’s overarching system. Brutal violence seems to be the only solution to everybody’s problems, and Akira dishes out as much as he takes while trying to leave his career as an assassin behind while helping Yukine get her life in order. ‘You’re a stalker?’ she asks. ‘No…maybe I am’, is his uncertain reply. Relationships in this world are guarded, tentative, or on the slow track to tragedy: Tamegoro tries to treat Akira like his real son, but his approach to parenting is more of a recruitment programme. Akira visits Tamegoro to collect the money for his most recent job and stays for dinner, but the atmosphere is strained and conversation is largely one-sided, with Akira eating quickly to get out of the door. After his departure, Tamegoro is visited by another of his ‘sons’, suggesting one of the strangest cinematic families in recent years.
End of the Night deals with disillusionment, but it is tonally deadpan rather than dour. It begins with a quote from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – “It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice” – and takes place in an urban landscape that is at once recognisable and decidedly off-kilter. Miyazaki provides only glimpses of how Tamegoro’s network operates, with the patriarch running a shop that sells pillows and duvet covers as a legitimate front for his criminal activities, while there is no explanation provided for why hits have been ordered on Akira’s victims, or how the crusading police detective who turns up in the third act knows that Akira is connected to so many seemingly unrelated murders. This internal logic is well-served by cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa, whose pared-down yet moodily-lit compositions make sinister connections between seemingly ordinary spaces, and the circular structure of the narrative that offers Akira some chance of closure. Ironic detachment is favoured over shoot-outs, with Nakamura’s perpetually emotionless facial expression implying a lifetime of torment, despite his character’s relative youth. In terms of independent underworld films, the low-key sensibility of End of the Night has similarities to Aki Kaurismaki’s I Hired a Contract Killer (1990) or Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (1999) and The Limits of Control (2009). Loose comparisons aside, Miyazaki’s debut is a visually sharp and subtly playful meditation on noir tropes that announces the arrival of a distinctive new voice in Japanese cinema.