In this weeks instalment of Eastern Premise Jason Julier takes a look at the intriguingly titled The Most Terrible Time In My Life from Japanese filmmaker Kaizô Hayashi. 

The plan for this week’s Eastern Premise was a classic crime capper. The initial thought was Akira Kurosawa’s watershed Drunken Angel or a piece stolen from the rebellious Yakuza genre. Both represented good suspects; even before considering Shinya Tsukamoto’s startling Nightmare Detective. Instead, we’re going film noir with Kaizo Hayashi’s Waga Jinsei Saiaku no Toki, which is better known as The Most Terrible Time in My Life and heavily influenced by Kurosawa’s gangster works.

Released in 1994, to general acclaim the film can be considered Hayashi’s most successful work and spawned several sequels along with a television spinoff.  This 2002 television series consisted of 12 episodes and an impressive list of guest directors including Alex Cox, Ishii Sogo (Crazy Thunder Road, Angel Dust) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata). Prior to this success, Hayashi had shown promise with Nijusseiki Shonen Dokuhon (Circus Boys) and the violently memorable yet unstructured Zipang. His career since has drifted more towards television including directing episodes of the Power Rangers Time Force of all things, before recent work as a writer and producer.

The Most Terrible Time in My Life can be seen as a labour of love and the first film in Hayashi’s trilogy of noirs collectively known as Maiku Hama. Classic noir and pulp fiction, it contains many audacious elements that the Japanese cinema audience and anime fans would lap up. There is a brazen feel to proceedings, with copious amounts of finger dismemberment and violence amidst some stylish set pieces.

Set in Yokohama, the main character is a private eye detective Maiku ‘Mike’ Hama who runs his business from an office above a cinema. A quirk of the location is that any prospective client is not allowed access to the building until they’ve purchased a cinema ticket from the zealous box office attendant. Those that do gain entry will find an enthusiastic, young and streetwise hustler with an impressive cast of contacts for almost every situation. With a passion for loud shirts and a 1950’s Americana vehicles, Maiku stands out from the crowd and is well known to the yakuza and police.

The lad is far from a gritty, battle scared street punk. In fact he is unblemished in comparison to many of his friends. Hayashi ensures we know that this kid actually cares beneath his cool exterior and for all his confidence has so much more to learn. Such a caring sentiment sees him coming to the rescue of a Taiwanese waiter who finds himself on the wrong side of a local yakuza. Problem solved, the waiter is impressed enough to hand Maiku a considerable sum to find his brother who arrived in Japan 2 years prior and has since disappeared. What seems like a straightforward missing person case unravels into a whole heap of trouble. Particularly when the gangland links of his brother and his real mission in Japan becomes apparent.

Beneath the missing person exterior is the emergence of a new Yakuza outfit known as the Black Dog gang. Its membership is made up from what are known as ‘New Japs’ , foreigners looking to make their mark on Japanese society, similar to last week’s Dead or Alive young upstarts.  Clearly Hayashi wanted to spotlight the issue of racism and this melting pot of Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and China forms a cesspool of violence. The nationalism issue is never really tackled head on or addressed in any detail, as it simply exists as a plot device. Entertainment rather than debate is top of the list for The Most Terrible Time in My Life and in this regard the film is a success.

Returning to the film recently for this column, the main criticism I have, and which persists to this day, is the casting of the Masatoshi Nagase lead role. Best known for Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, for all his energy and enthusiasm, Masatoshi Nagase is too fresh faced and clean cut to carry off the role. Compared to many of the chisel faced henchmen and cops he tangles with, Nagase lacks the persona to portray the essence of the character. It is one he certainly grew into over the years before appearing in films as influential as Sion Sono’s Suicide Club and Seijun Suzuki’s Pistol Opera.     

Apart from this criticism, the cast put in admirable performances and the overall production standard separates the film from a run of the mill entry in the Yakuza genre. This elevation is partially due to the stylish cinematography displayed throughout the film and a series of well-chosen locations.  These are harnessed by charismatic lighting and inventive camera angles that make The Most Terrible Time in my Life such a pleasing visual experience even if you decide to dispense with the storyline.  Such a core strength is welcome, as the actual dialogue is predictable and the action is more slapstick than knockout.

The Most Terrible Time in My Life has yet to receive a UK release and is never likely to now. However US DVD label Kino Lorber has released the complete feature film trilogy for those wishing to experience the world of Maiku ‘Mike’ Hama.  It’s a fun visual road trip while it lasts but for more substance and style try Kurosawa’s pre-Rashomon work.