Production Company: Nikkatsu
Release: 10 July 1999
Length: 109 min.
Format: 35 mm
Director: Hiroki Ryuichi
Screenplay: Ogawa Tomoko
Based on the novel by: Kirino Natsuo
Photography: Sato Kazuhito
Art Director: Hosoishi Terumi
Murano Miro: Katase Rino
Tomobe Akihiko: Osugi Ren
Yashiro: Nagasawa Toshiya
Tawada: Taguchi Tomoro
Isshiki Rina: Shimada Hiroko
Hatta Makiko: Shingyoji Kimie
The Hellish Loneliness of Living in the Big City
Ever since its towering spires began to blot out the sky, the modern city has been metaphorically tied to hell. From Hell’s Kitchen in New York to the shadowy infernos of film noir, the city has come to represent in name and image the depths to which humanity can sink.
The title of Ryuichi Hiroki’s new film, Night Without Angels (“Tenshi ni Misuterareta Yoru”: literally, “The Night Abandoned by Angels”), brings this to mind, if only because Hiroki has always been known as a “city” director for his depictions of metropolises like Tokyo and Yokohama. But while the film’s city is disturbingly hellish, Hiroki nevertheless skillfully evokes the temporary acceptance of being abandoned by heaven.
While the film is a mystery by genre, it is as much about the detective, Murano Miro (Katase Rino), a single, 38-year-old woman who took over her father’s private investigation agency in Shinjuku when he retired.
The plot begins when her friend Watanabe (Nishiyama Mizuki), a women’s rights activist, hires her to find Rina Isshiki (Shimada Hiroko), an adult video starlet whose vehicle “Ultra Rape” featured an all-too-realistic rape scene, so that charges can be pressed.
But the focus shifts to Miro’s loneliness when, just as soon as she takes the case, a stray cat she befriended is killed and strung up in front of her apartment door. A device commonly used to prod the movie detective’s resolve, but here, it serves to create a relationship between Miro and her next-door neighbor Tomobe (Osugi Ren), a middle-aged owner of a gay bar, who tries to comfort her.
The comforting eventually turns out to be mutual because both are alone: Tomobe’s lover had recently left him, and Miro’s husband had committed suicide some years before. Hiroki repeatedly shoots the two from outside their apartment building, each visible through the windows of their respective abodes, united on screen but desperately divided by the urban architecture. Ironically, they can always sense the presence of the other through the sounds of water running, but until then, they had never spoken to each other.
Their growing relationship can only be a limited one because of Tomobe’s homosexuality. Hiroki, a veteran of both gay and straight adult flicks, inevitably introduces the issue of desire in the figure of Yashiro (Nagasawa Toshiya), the muscular president of the company that produced “Ultra Rape.” A rude and unpleasant man who insists the rape was just acting, Yashiro forces himself on Miro, who not only gives in to his advances but develops a sexual relationship with him.
This turn of events is not exactly a pleasure to watch: not only is Yashiro, given his aggressiveness and prevaricating, a likely suspect in Rina’s disappearance, we hope for more of Miro, a detective supposedly championing a feminist cause.
But in the script by Tomoko Ogawa, based on the novel by Natsuo Kirino, no one is pure enough to righteously condemn others. That Miro continues her relationship with Yashiro, whom she intellectually dislikes, while still investigating him, reflects both the complexity of her character and the muddiness of this world.
Night Without Angels is not noirish enough to deny us a solution to all the puzzles in the end. But by telling us what happened to Rina, Hiroki draws parallels between her and Miro and indicates that both, in their own way, have been victims to a world rampant with lies, anonymous relations, virtual realities and dissipated families.
Hiroki shoots this urban jungle with a grainy color style, which renders it all the more unattractive. Yet his vision of the pastoral suburbs, seen only once in the film, is probably not much better, given the lengths it goes to protect itself from urban disturbances.
In the end, Hiroki makes peace with the infernal city, just as Miro finds her own way to exist there with a job and a nonsexual relationship with Tomobe. Hiroki’s camera movements through the Shinjuku streets have a strange beauty to them, deriving from their force, repetition and rhythm. Sure, there are no angels in the city, but who ever expected this to be heaven?
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 15 July 1999, p. 9
Copyright 1999: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow