How far would you go to protect a murderer?
Takashi Miike’s latest action-thriller, Shield of Straw (2013) – starring Takao Osawa, Nanaka Matsushima and Death Note`s Tatsuya Fujiwara – takes a look at the dark side of human-nature and how easily money draws it out, pitting five cops against, not just each other, but the entire country as they each struggle with their own sense of duty and justice.
Based on the novel of the same name by Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Miike’s Shield of Straw pits two police officers (Atsuko, played by Nanako Matsushima, and Kazuki, played by Takao Osawa), charged with protecting a convicted child murderer, Kunihide Kiyomaru (Tatsuya Fujiwara), against a slew of drug dealers, crocked cops, and average citizens bent on killing Kunihide and cashing in on the 10 billion yen bounty that the billionaire grandfather of Kunihide’s victim has placed on his head.
With an obscene amount of money on the line, Atsuko and Kazuki find that just about anyone is willing to kill.
The premise of Shield of Straw may not be a new one for many movie go-ers, but Miike does a good job of keeping things interesting by focusing on the tension between the police officers charged with protecting child murderer, Kunihide Kiyomaru from everyone around them. With the ten million dollar bounty on Kunihide`s head everyone, including those charged with protecting him, is a potential threat. The whole situation is further compounded by a website that is streaming in real time, Kunihide`s exact location. There is a betrayer in their midst, but who? Everyone is a suspect and everyone has a motive to kill Kunihide and cash in on the bounty, be it a sense of justice, retribution or financial pressures.
Kunihide doesn’t make things any better for himself, considering his is guarded 24-7 by armed officers. He is unapologetic about his crimes, and on more than one occasion you get the impression that he almost relishes what he has done and that, given the chance, he would do it again. Nor does he have any regard or respect for his protectors, but rather he gets off on taunting them,seeming almost pleased when one of them is killed. Kunihide has no redeeming qualities and there is nothing about him that gives either the characters or the audience any reason to think his is a life worth saving.
This is where Shield of Straw sets itself up as more than just an ‘action’ movie. In addition to explosions and the other bells and whistles of your typical ‘action flick’, Shield of Straw also has a strong thread of ethics and morality running through it as each character weighs in on the big questions: ‘Is it right to kill a murderer?’, ‘Are all lives equal?’ ‘If not is Kunihide worth saving, considering he has taken the lives of others?’
Personally, I love movies that do this and the whole time I was watching Shield of Straw I kept asking myself ‘what would I do?’ and weighing up the validity of every characters’ argument against my own values only to find that no matter which position I took I couldn’t find one that didn’t upset one of my values. I love a movie that makes me think and provides an interesting point of discussion. Don’t get me wrong I love popcorn movies, far more than high-brow art house films, but I also like to have something to talk about once the movie is over. Discussion about how hot an actor/character was or how intense a fight scene was can only go on for so long.
As the primary catalyst for tension in the film, Tatsuya Fujiwara does a great job as Kunihide. Though I have to admit that after watching so many of his films I do find his acting to be pretty uniform across all of the characters he plays, particularly his propensity to shout and yell. Not that I hate it, but by now without even looking at a character description you can pretty much guess the character type if Tatsuya is playing them. Compared to most of the other Japanese actors I love – such as Takeru Sato, who has incredibly expressive eyes and more subdued acting style – Tatsuya’s acting is more at the ‘over the top’ end of the spectrum. It’s probably why he plays so many psychologically twisted characters.
In comparison to a lot of Miike’s other film – such as Lesson of the Evil , which is more along the lines of what you would expect from Miike- Shield of Straw at first glance may seem a little out of character for Miike, who has made a name for himself with films that don’t fit the norm and feature excessive levels of graphic violence. In this respect Shield of Straw is not your typical Miike film, but that doesn’t make it a bad Miike film. Miike makes up for the lack of violence through the characters, in particular the question of their integrity (or innocence in the case of Kunihide). Miike repeatedly draws his audience into trusting a character, then throws it all into doubt. Or in the case of Kunihide, he fosters unease about Kunihide’s guilt and his character in general by highlighting moments of both vulnerability and the monster that lurks inside.
Shield of Straw is such a solid film all round with so few moments of weakness that it’s easy to see how it was such a box office hit. Even though there is no denying that being based on a hit novel and having a number of big names involved in the film – Miike, Fujiwara, etc. – would have been enough to draw a decent crowd for Shield of Straw the film isn’t lazy and you aren’t left at the end of the film wondering whether or not you’ve just wasted your time.
- Fans of Takashi Miike`s films
- those new to Takashii Miike films
- those who want a little psycho-thriller/suspense in their action films
About the Author: Reiyezerwyre is full time language teacher, and part-time otaku based in Japan with a love for film, music, language and fandom