[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]
Of the nearly 80 films that were shown between NYAFF and Japan Cuts, the vast majority were some kind of premiere, either International, North American, US, or New York. Of them, only one was a world premiere: Ushijima the Loan Shark. Like so many of the other films at Japan Cuts, Ushijima is based on a manga, and like Love Strikes!, is the followup to a Japanese TV series. Going into it, I knew nothing about its comic source or the show that preceded it. But now I’m curious and am going to look into them.
I want to see more of Ushijima, because he’s awesome.
Ushijima the Loan Shark (Yamikin Ushijima-kun | 闇金ウシジマくん)
Director: Masatoshi Yamaguchi
Ushijima the Loan Shark does not actually center around Ushijima the Loan Shark (Takayuki Yamada). It’s really an ensemble piece, but the character through which most of the events take place is a guy named Jun Ogawa (Kento Hayashi). Jun is the manager of a teen dance group sensation called “BUMPS.” He has literally thousands of contacts in the three phones he always carries around with him, and he’s trying to become the best manager/event-coordinator in the entire world. But his entire future hinges on his selling out his next big show. That show will make or break him, so it has to go off without a hitch. But there are two problems: 1) Jun needs a lot of money, and 2) Jun is stupid.
Jun is stupid because he doesn’t understand just how powerful the people he messes with are. By the time things really get going, Jun has four people who are really dangerous who want a lot of money from him. He brings it upon himself, honestly, and it’s difficult to sympathize with his plight. In fact, it’s difficult to sympathize with the majority of people in Ushijima the Loan Shark. Few of the characters are particularly multifaceted, and the sides that we do see are almost exclusively bad. Nobody is completely good, which is rare enough in stories that the film should be commended on that, but the number of people who are any good at all could be counted on one hand.
What that leads to, though, is quite a lot of conflict. As I said, Ushijima the Loan Shark is an ensemble piece, so there are a lot of people with different conflicts. Ushijima, for example, has to deal with all of the people who have taken out loans from him, but he also has to deal with the cops, who are trying to nab him for making illegal loans; Jun has to deal with everything and everybody; Mirai (Yuko Oshima), who is another, slightly lesser plot centerpiece, has to deal with her gambling-addicted prostitute mother (Asuka Kurosawa) as well as Jun and Ushijima (who handled her mother’s loans). The film gives each of them their due, even if they’re not necessary worth rooting for. But their individual conflicts are interesting enough to keep things moving.
As could be expected, the moments featuring Ushijima are the best of the film. He’s a commanding presence, and his circular spectacles and neckbeard make him seem surprisingly threatening. His business practices (50% interest every ten days, or “ten-fifty”) are designed to be as punishing as possible to anyone who would ask for a loan from him, but he somehow has a business nonetheless. It seems that much of his money comes from purchasing the debts of others. Perhaps the TV show delves a bit more into his business, but the movie doesn’t spend too much time focusing on it. Ushijima’s actions are really what matter.
Ushijima the Loan Shark is a very dark film, dealing with rape, murder, torture, prostitution, and other things of that sort (which made it a very strange follow-up to Rent-a-Cat). Sometimes that tone works in the film’s favor, but sometimes it seems like it’s there just to be there. The most obvious example involves the head of a gang burning a man with cigarettes and stapling his face. That man has nothing to do with the plot, and the scene is just there to be dark and disturbing. It gives a sense of how awful the gangleader is, but honestly that character doesn’t have much place in the film either. His only real purpose seems to be demonstrating how powerful Ushijima is.
And Ushijima is powerful. When he gets to unleash his might, it’s awesome. The best scene of the film involves him finally getting to show everyone that he’s not all talk. Even when you see him do terrible things, it’s not him going toe-to-toe with a psychotic mass-murderer named Fleshviper. Only when he’s put in that situation does it really hammer home just how awesome that guy is. The Fleshviper plotline, too, is kind of weird and unnecessary (Jun has enough problems without Fleshviper there to screw things up further), but since it allows Ushijima to let loose, I’m completely okay with that.
I’m actually going to just go and say that most of the plotlines are kind of irrelevant. It may be an ensemble film, but it’s really Ushijima’s movie. Even though things are seen mostly through the lens of what Jun needs to do, everything really leads back to Ushijima and his lending business (Cow Cow Finance). Maybe that’s why those two aforementioned things bothered me so much, because they had nothing at all to do with Ushijima. They both had to do with Jun. Even Mirai’s issues with her mother, although mostly kept between the two of them (and the third person that Mirai’s mother is trying to get her to have sex with), are in part due to Ushijima and his loans to her. So even though he’s not there, and thus I didn’t care as much as I could have, there was some level of connection. There are other major arcs that could also have been done away with, although they were more integral to the overall plot.
Nonetheless, I quite liked Ushijima the Loan Shark. Even though I didn’t really like most of the characters and felt that they totally deserved the bad things that were coming to them, it was interesting to see them dig themselves into a hole (and in some cases pull themselves out of it). I wish it had centered more around Ushijima, because he was really what kept everything together, but that really just means I need to seek out other Ushijima-themed media. If the manga and TV show are as enjoyable (if that is the word) as the film was, then I have some good times ahead of me.