Motion Pixels is a series of haphazard articles hoping to link the passions of gaming and films. Through recommendations, general chicanery, and, sometimes, analysis our hope is to set you, dear reader, on a path of exploration you might not have previously undergone.
Perspective is really what it’s all about, isn’t it? Empathizing with others in your day-to-day, or with characters on-screen or coming off of the page. Standing in someone else’s shoes, or seeing something in a different light is really an admirable quality in a person, and a work of art. The Yakuza game series makes an interesting case for perspective.
Over the course of seven main games and various spin-offs, the story of brawler Kazama Kiryu unfolds, gangster melodrama and fights against tigers peppering the character study a smidge. Crucial to these games is the environment. Kamurocho, a stand-in for real-world Kabukicho, is a rough district of Tokyo that serves as your stomping grounds across the games. One might think the use of the same game world for so many repeat visits would become utterly monotonous, but the ways in which each game begs the player to explore different parts of the tight, dense map gives insight into the city’s virtual inhabitants.
Enter Judgement, a spin-off of the Yakuza series also set to take place in Kamurocho. Whereas before we were slugging around as an honorable gangster, Judgement puts the player in the role of Takayuki Yagami, a private investigator working a case of linked murders. New investigative gameplay mechanics and ways of interacting with the denizens of the city will surely spice up the long-running franchise, but there’s something beyond gameplay that has me most excited about Judgement: Detectives!
For as much as a cinematic staple as the police detective or PI has become over the better part of a century, video games have some serious catching up to do. Granted, Max Payne and his bullet time are icons of the medium, but AAA games that allow actual case work, the following of leads and inspection of evidence, those are the games we’re missing. So, with Judgement hopefully filling that void soon, it feels appropriate to take a look at some cinematic gumshoes that might make the wait for the plane back to Kamurocho a little more bearable.
The Long Goodbye (1973) Robert Altman
How do you top Bogart? Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep featured the fast-talking, chain-smoking Philip Marlowe played by Bogart back in 1946 and further cemented the actor as perhaps the de facto face of the cinematic private investigator. So along comes a new adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s famous gumshoe; different director, different era. What’s a PI like in the turbulence of ’70s Los Angeles? The lazing, easy-going, too-smart-to-be-a-hippy Elliott Gould.
When a friend in need approaches Marlowe in a panic the detective becomes wrapped up in a case of a murdered wife and a dead friend, leading from the beach home of a Hemingway-like novelist to the dusty streets of Tijuana. In a fashion typical to the genre, one lead trickles to another at a rate of rapid detail that might lose a viewer, but there’s no worry about tripping up on the facts. Just settle in for the ride.
Gould is cast perfectly, with the sarcastic, underdog vibe he emanates feeding into an atmosphere of post-Summer of Love and Vietnam malaise, offset by the white-out sunlight of Los Angeles. It’s the little interactions between Angelenos and Marlowe that make The Long Goodbye so special, his dry obstinance towards authority undercut by his empathy for the downtrodden. He’s a guy who’s been kicked down by the world, but he’s not out; just stretching out on the floor.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) Robert Aldrich
When your main character’s name is “Mike Hammer,” you just know you’re in for a good time. Ralph Meeker stars in one of the more-bizarre of the classic noir detective stories. After picking up a mysterious, beautiful hitchhiker (Cloris Leachman) the two are assailed by mysterious goons, with Hammer waking up in a hospital. He and the hitchhiker were found in his car, barreled over the side of a cliff. He made it. She didn’t.
The ensuing mystery of what the hell exactly is going on goes from odd to odder, featuring nuclear paranoia to match the early years of the Cold War in which the film was made, and a mysterious briefcase that would inspire the likes of Repo Man and Pulp Fiction, among others, for decades to come.
But the glee of Kiss Me Deadly comes from much the same place as it does in The Long Goodbye: Our detective. Mike Hammer is not a nice man. For one, we learn his practice floats on the blackmailing of adulterers, and generally putting people in difficult positions. Including positions that hurt. Meeker’s portrayal shows Hammer as thuggish and brutal, snapping the prized record of a potential lead for information and flattening the noses of hired goons with a smile on his face. PI characters are often played as slick, questionable characters, but we always get some sort of hardened hustler with a heart of gold. Hammer is more like a boulder with a heart of coal.
Neruda (2016) Pablo Larraín
Alright, so this is a wild diversion but, y’know what? Good movies are good movies! And Neruda is most-definitely a good movie! Released quietly alongside the filmmaker’s massive Natalie Portman-led Jackie in December of 2016, Neruda is Pablo Larraín’s curious and beautiful depiction of the titular Chilean poet as he flees his home country, branded an undesirable for his communist politics. Luis Gnecco plays the poet, while the Gael Garcia Bernal plays suave detective Óscar Peluchonneau tracking Neruda across South America.
Ding-ding-ding-ding! See? There’s a detective! Neruda delights in its cat-and-mouse pursuit, Bernal’s investigator taking a pleasure in his work that isn’t something we often see in movies. We’ve had sadistic cops, fetishistic PIs, and all sorts of oddballs, but Peluchonneau is a man captivated by his prey.
To say more about the developments of Neruda‘s story would be a disservice; let’s just say it twists in ways you would never anticipate, going into a work of recounting facts… Or are they facts?
Klute (1971) Alan J Pakula
And it’s back to the American ’70s for our last movie. Who’d have thought turbulent times yield such great movies? When a company executive from Pennsylvania up and vanishes, private investigator John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is hired to follow his trail in New York City, picking up on a lead with classy and self-determined prostitute Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). Eventually we’re sucked into an underworld of pimps (Roy Scheider) and high-level businessmen that hooks you ’til the end.
Klute tells an appropriately-twisty story, but it’s always stuck with me as a technical showcase of Gordon Willis’ terrific cinematography (he also shot The Godfather and its sequels, as well as some of Woody Allen’s best), but really predominantly as a deep and affecting character study. Jane Fonda didn’t win an Oscar for nothing! Daniels is successful as a call girl, but struggling to break into cleaner work, her regular psychiatrist meetings a raw showcase of Fonda’s talent and a woman fighting a man’s world. Misogyny and its many colors factors heavily in Klute‘s story, one in which men treat women like objects and often get away with it. It never veers into some of the awful graphic abuse that’s been committed to film, but Klute gnaws at questions like few other films do.
Its approach towards empowering women makes the relationship that blossoms between Daniels and Klute all the more interesting, the detective a shy and seemingly-asexual man. Their relationship becomes one where Bree is able to be seen for more than her looks, by a lonely man working the case.
I’m not quite sure exactly where Yagami’s work in Judgement will take players; whether it veers into the grim coldness that the cinematic detective often faces remains to be seen. But even if we do end up doing the old Yakuza disco, or whittling away at bizarre side quests, the films mentioned here should provide a fix for anyone looking to go deep into the paperwork and leads of dissecting a mystery.