The Fable (Japan, 2019) [NYAFF 2019]

Katsuhisa Minami’s seinen manga The Fable has been serialised in Weekly Young Magazine since 2014 and it won the general category of the 41st Kodansha Manga Awards in 2017. Its straight shooting story of a hit-man’s travails is mostly down-to-earth in art style and narrative for a manga. Its hard-boiled nature is supported by characters drawn with natural proportions while any seriousness is subverted by dashes of satire thanks to an emphasis on their unique personality traits. A movie version is a natural progression but to make it engaging it needs a cast and crew to capture the subtle comedic and hardcore action parts of the story.

The Fable (Junichi Okada) is actually the name of a contract killer operating in the Tokyo underworld. His ability to kill is almost preternatural and it is shown with visual pizzazz in the bombastic opening where he takes out two gangs in a fancy sky-rise restaurant. Efficient shooting and movement, short and sharp physical strikes and an aura of something unstoppable is what defines him and overpowers his opponents. All tumble down before him in action scenes excitingly delivered by director Kan Eguchi who favours quick editing, kinetic camerawork and exploding sets to bolster the slick action choreography. Eguchi doubles-down on the style by showing the mental calculations Fable makes through cute on-screen text and illustrations that get shattered by the bullets the killer sends flying.

With this impressive opening, audiences understand why Fable is an urban myth that other hit-men like Fudo (Sota Fukushi) want to challenge so it stands to reason when Fable’s boss (Koichi Sato) wants the killer and his handler Yoko (Fumino Kimura) to lie low for one year in Osaka until the heat dies down. There is the caveat that Fable must avoid killing anyone. Helping them out in that regard is the Maguro yakuza group run by Hamada (Ken Mitsuishi) and Ebihara (Ken Yasuda), two middle-aged middle-manager types who have their soldiers on a payroll to keep them out of trouble. They offer the two a quiet nondescript place to stay so they can get jobs and blend in with the community. However trouble is about to emerge as Ebihara’s vicious blood brother Kojima (Yuya Yagira) is released from prison and he is eager to engage with an internecine gang war with equally vicious rival Sunagawa (Osamu Mukai).

The action slows down considerably for the middle-section as Fable and Yoko relocate to Osaka (as represented by a shot of Shinsekai and the Tsutenkaku tower) and the plot manoeuvres various characters into position with the introduction of Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto), a young woman Fable develops a crush on, and her subsequent peril at the hands of the gang. The high-octane John Wick-style opening turns into a low-key character comedy reliant on humour to keep the mood buoyant and mild threat to Fable’s potential love interest to add tension and this is where the fun performances from Junichi Okada and Fumino Kimura come in as they make for a mischievous duo. 

A great cast has been assembled and each of the actors capture the look of the manga’s characters, especially Junichi Okada and Fumino Kimura who fit their roles perfectly. Kimura imbues her hard-drinking Yoko with a charming joie de vivre as she tricks and charms her way through the film’s roster of characters a little like Fujiko Mine in the Lupin III stories. Okada delivers a perfectly deadpan performance for Fable’s absurd behaviour, always keeping a straight face as his character’s unique genius way of thinking causes him to behave oddly in normal situations. Even before any flashbacks to Fable’s upbringing Okada’s performance helps the script reveal the dark background of Fable’s lack of experience in social settings as well as his deadly skills. He shows mental arrested-development in moments when he bursts with laughter over the schoolboy comedy of his hero Jackal Tomioka and reacts to everything ruthlessly and directly but also with innocence and earnestness. The broader physical humour and facial expressions (or lack of), not to mention his severe case of ‘Nekojita’ (a tongue super-sensitive to hot food), become a recurring joke that softens his character and will make the audience laugh out loud. 

In supporting roles, Yuya Yagira and Osamu Mukai broil with intense levels of hatred and their side characters feel like they have a lot of depth, more than Sota Fukushi’s contract killer since he lacks the same burning presence. Their violent conflict is throwaway but a great excuse to unleash Fable on the Osaka gang in a no-kill final confrontation which reignites the film’s thrills after so much set-up. Okada displays himself as a top-notch fighter with Jackie Chan levels of agility and bursts of speed in some impressive wall jumping and parkour that one might see in a Police Story film. While the final battle descends into a mess and doesn’t quite have the punch of the opening, the characters are compelling and their behaviour is funny thanks to the performances. Audiences will want to see more adventures of The Fable! 

The Fable is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival on July 2.