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July 12, 2012

Heat Wave

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Hideo Gosha - 1991
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

The second to last entry in Hideo Gosha's filmography, Heat Wave would appear to be a throwback to the yakuza films of the early Seventies, were it not for the various scenes of women baring their breasts. And with a cast that includes such stalwarts both of Japanese cinema and Gosha's previous films, Tatsuya Nakadai, and briefly, Tetsuro Tamba, it's as if Gosha was doing his own update of genre while paying tribute to the stars of the past.

The film mostly belongs to Kanako Higuchi as Rin, the itinerant gambler who returns home, with deadly consequences for all. The plot could well be the same for a western. Even though the action takes place in 1928, it is in a Japan that is still very traditional, even with the presence of trains and electricity. Orphaned as a young girl when her father is killed for cheating at a card game, Rin is adopted by a prosperous family that runs a large restaurant. Accidentally meeting up with her younger brother, ten years after leaving Kyushu, Rin finds herself returning home, playing a high stakes game with multiple connections to her past.

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Gosha's opening shot is of Rin pouring water over herself, her tattooed bare back clearly seen. In her first scene with dialogue, Rin is standing with the extended, open palm, the classic scene of introduction found in most period yakuza movies. It may be no coincidence that Rin, who lives autonomously, is the one female character in the film that is still standing. This is not to say that Heat Wave is particularly feminist in design. The message, if one is to be found, is more nihilistic, suggesting that it is best not to invest too much in material or personal attachments.

I'm not sure what to make of one scene where the crime family that Rin confronts are introduced watching a live sex show. What appears to be a geisha and a tonsured male is revealed to be two women performing for the entertainment of their male patrons. Without making a "Pink Film", Gosha was known to push the envelope for his depiction of nudity in mainstream films during his last decade as a filmmaker. Even though it may have caused finger wagging from some critics, it kept Gosha commercially viable, and did nothing to keep Heat Wave from getting seven nominations from the Japanese Academy.

It's only been in the past few years that some of Gosha's films have been made available officially in the U.S. Most of the writing as centered on individual films. Writing for the Washington Post, Steohen Hunter is certainly not alone in seeing Gosha's films as westerns in eastern garb, although for myself, I see Goyokin (1969) as something of a riff mostly on Sergio Leone with an unexpected play on Hitchcock's The Birds on the side. Unlike most westerns, Heat Wave ends with the climatic battle happening indoors, in Rin's family mansion, with guns, knives and swords, while the place is on fire. And in classic yakaza tradition, Rin leaves in the same way that she first appears onscreen, alone.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 12, 2012 07:50 AM