Sunday, January 27, 2013

Re: Mike Hama- The Most Terrible Time In My Life (1994)

Residing in a small office above the Nichigeki Cinescope in Yokohama, young private eye, Mike Hama (Masatoshi Nagase) has long been known in the area as the guy to go to when seeking out missing family members, pets, and the like. His goals are simple, live the life of a freelance seeker for hire, and raise the money for his teenage sister's(Mika Ohmine) college expenses. So when he meets a young Chinese waiter in search of his long-lost brother, matters are complicated by the revelation that this case is far more steeped in the town's nastier elements than Mike and his local buddies are ready to handle. No, this is not your granddad's dingy black and white crime saga. Existing within a 1990s dream of detective dramas of old, the initial entry in this one of a kind trilogy oozes with love for the classics with a sly comic edge. This is the wacky and violent world of Mike Hama.

Even as Hama's dogged lo-fi approach to detective work carries with it a welcoming aversion to prejudice, what lies ahead for him borders on spiraling headlong into Japan's growing fear of becoming a melting pot. It is soon after better getting to know the seemingly innocent Yang (Yang Hai Tin), it is revealed that his brother is in deep with a violent gang known as "The New Japs", that the unflappable sleuth (and the film) finds himself in something increasingly grim & desperate. With Yang's brother now fixed to be a prime mover in a newly growing underworld, and nothing quite being what they seem, it is up to Hama and buddies to at the very least, minimize the damage. Something that becomes an important distinction for the Hama trilogy; each film begins with a breezy, almost cartoonish tone, only to plummet into some truly bleak territory.

Even as a lot of what Hama and pals do regularly is almost reminiscent of say Tora-san, or even Lupin III to a degree, it is often a sleight of hand that underlies a shadier side just waiting around the edges.  We see Hama spend time with many of his local informant friends, and local business owners just happy to see him, and often oblige with some of his more questionable requests. And it's because Hama is by and large a cool, nice guy. But once we meet his great mentor in Joe (Played to tough guy perfection by the great Jo Shishido), we are made privy to a nastier delinquent past. One could almost see Hama as a sort of Robin-type; ready to do right, but prone to explosive violence once the pressure gets to be too much. It is this dynamic that is played at subtly, but also serves to not merely threaten the bad guys, but what remains of his family, and his more welcoming self. Nagase embodies this with just the right balance of sweetness, and almost uncontrollable menace.

The first of three Hama projects he worked on (the third not being the final feature "The Trap"), director Kaizo Hayashi lovingly turns mid-1990s Yokohama into a place half embraced by shadow, and caressed by smooth lighting provided by DP Yuchi Nagata. The entire world of Hama, is that of a moviehead's subsconscious not unlike the more flamboyant worlds of one Quentin Tarantino. Even as the world clearly contains items and apocrypha commisurate with the stark worlds of film noir, the film never shies away from making it clear that we are very much within the latter days of more direct, pre-digital communication. Hama may drive an absurd classic car, but so much of his work requires demanding amounts of door to door. Very real locations highlight much of his city's charms. And again, much like Hama's home, it is a world glossed in often gaudy charm, housing within it a troubled core.

So yes, much of the initial Maiku Kama outing is more about style than substance. And Keizo Hayashi adds quite a bit of warmth, regardless of how borderline melodramatic Daisuke Tengan's script gets. Big nods go to indie maverick, Shinya Tsumamoto who plays the film's scary toady, Yamaguchi, which brings to mind many of Kinji Fukasaku's most famous knife-wielding baddies. And because Hama is nothing like his american inspiraton, the jeopardy is thick despite the limitations of budget. The Most Terrible Time In My Life is at times a truly joyful hug to generations of detective stories that continues to deserve more eyes.


  1. Great review. I didn't know Mike Hammer had been picked up/reinterpreted by Japanese filmmakers. I find Yokohama sort of intriguing (close to Tokyo, ramen museum, Chinese mafia) - may try to see this film.

  2. Thanks so much, Jan! I plan to talk a little about the entire trilogy over the next few weeks, so stay tuned should you be interested. A truly fun series that is a sweet reminder of not only J-cinema's noir-tinged past, but of an indie spirit that is seldom seen there anymore. I also hope to eventually write about the TV specials that came a few years later. Well worth digging into!