Based on a 2000 manga by Shohei Manabe, Smuggler opens with three men driving a truck in the rain. We are then introduced to each of the character properly, starting with Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a 25 year-old slacker and actor wannabe who gets into trouble with the Chinese mafia because of some slot-machine mess-up. He ends up owing them three million yen and with no way to pay them back, the Chinese refer him to someone they call the Banker who is likely to have a job for him. The Banker (Yasuko Matsuyuki) is apparently a woman, dressed in Gothic Lolita style, who runs various errands for any crime syndicate who has enough money to pay. Through her, Kinuta gets his new job—together with an indifferent driver called Joe (Masatoshi Nagase) and his incredibly chatty older sidekick Jiji (Tatsuya Gashuin), they transport whatever goods they’re asked to and this particular time they are hauling multiple dead bodies in their truck and are ordered to get rid of them.
Apart from the three guys, we also follow a pair of Chinese assassins, Vertebrae (Masanobu Ando) and Viscera (Ryushin Tei) who, at the beginning of the movie, busted through a secret meeting of some yakuza members and Vertebrae then wiped them all out single-handedly with his nunchucks. And since one of the victims is the head of a yakuza group, of course the other members want to seek revenge, and the most eager of all is a psychopathic torturer named Kawashima (Masahiro Takashima).
The first and most important thing that you should know about Smuggler is that it’s based on a manga. Even though the first few minutes don’t look it, be rest assured that as you go along, it’ll be more obvious—the characters, the gags and sometimes the wardrobe. So, for those who aren’t too keen on seeing some exaggerated, wacky characters, it’s probably better to stay away from it from the start.
Even though watching a manga-based movie provides a unique experience by itself, this time it’s not exactly delivered well. Whether it’s because of the fact that it’s a manga adaptation or something else, Smuggler feels rather weak. It’s actually got a pretty interesting story, some interesting characters, but in the end everything just falls flat. The movie feels so cool and promising at first but things just go wrong.
This is not the first time that Masanobu Ando plays a vicious villain. In 2000’s Battle Royale, he plays Kiriyama, the sociopath genius. However the whole production of the movie, including everyone in it, is a disastrous adaptation of the incredible novel. Anyway, here, his hair is platinum blonde, his body is full with scars, he moves faster that the average human and he speaks Chinese. Some of the dialogues between him and his partner are few of the most interesting aspects of the movie but, again, Ando’s character isn’t exactly engaging. Although compared to everyone else, Vertebrae and the driver Joe perhaps steal most scenes.
Another thing with the movie is also the amount of violence in it. There’s a torture sequence that is surely to churn some stomachs. Although not exactly graphic, the scenes leading to the torture acts themselves are more than enough to give some disgusting imaginations. However, props to the make-up artists because Satoshi Tsumabuki ends up looking totally unrecognizable.
The movie is also very fond of slow-motion. When used efficiently, it really could add weight to a movie, however, this time there are just so many of those sequences that by the time they slow-motioned for the 182nd time, you can’t help rolling your eyes.
Katsuhito Ishii directed, storyboarded and co-wrote the script. Ishii is not exactly new to the international scene, as his 1999 movie Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl and 2005 movie Funky Forest were screened in various film festivals. In fact, Shark Skin Man and Peach Girl lead Ishii to Quentin Tarantino who then asked him to design and direct the animation sequences in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Smuggler is no exception and it had its premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. Although, some people who expected more Funky Forest would most probably be disappointed. Ishii has always been known for his quirky works but the subjects and stories can differ from one movie to another so much that we’ll never know what he’s going to do next.
All things being said, Smuggler is not exactly a bore. It’s not as interesting as it initially promises to be nor is it as extreme as we usually expect manga-based movies to be, it is quite in the middle—never really sure which way it wants to go. Nevertheless, it can still be fun at times.