Shin (Joe Odagiri) dreams of bigger and better things. Japan makes him sleepy, yet restless at the same time. He’s so bored. He wants something more, but what is it that he wants? Maybe it’s an adventure. He decides to go to the US: The land of opportunity. When he arrives in New York it all makes sense. He was looking for hazard. Not speaking one single word of English his stay in the States is immediately problematic. He gets robbed, but then he meets these crazy Japanese-American gangsters: Lee (Jai West) and Takeda (Fukami Motoki). They become great friends, but their criminal lifestyle is bound to get them all in big trouble.
There’s probably nothing harder for a non-American filmmaker than trying to direct a film in the United States. Many great directors have failed, because of the language barrier, cultural differences and other issues related to the film production and collaboration with foreign film studios and marketing teams. Sono Sion’s Hazard is a successful picture, because the director was able to stay true to his vision, work with mostly Japanese speaking actors and make a movie that doesn’t pretend to fully understand the United States. Hazard may be seen as a critique to American society, but if you look closely it’s much more about Japan.
Like the main character Shin, Sion doesn’t speak English and worked with an interpreter on set. Certainly a lot was lost in translation, what is interesting however is that like Shin, Sion is a tourist in the United States. Hazard shows Shin’s first impact with America, and New York specifically. It’s a rude awakening. The country is not like he imagined it at all. American people are very different from Japanese people. There’s poverty, ugliness, desolation, loneliness and greed. Was he better off in Japan? He feels alive in the States, he tries things he never experienced before. He lives dangerously and outside of any societal rules or laws.
His new friends are Japanese, but they’re also American. They bought into the American Dream, but live their own version of it. They sell blue speed ice cream, like they are in Grand Theft Auto. They live in a ridiculous mansion like they are big name rappers on MTV Cribs. They rob convenience stores like it’s Spring Breakers. They basically do whatever the fuck they want, when they want, but somehow they’re still sensitive souls. Lee loves to read Walt Whitman’s poems. Takeda has a crush on an American woman working in a restaurant. They might seem childish and arrogant on the outside, but they are loyal friends and quite romantic on the inside.
Hazard is an incredibly frenetic film, both visually and in terms of editing. Sometimes the camera moves so fast you can’t even see the picture, and sometimes the edits are so quick that if you blink you miss something. This is especially interesting considering Sion’s previous work up until that point, which was shot in a more traditional and classical way, using long takes and steady camera to tell his stories. In Hazard the camera is constantly moving, mostly handheld, like guerrilla filmmaking style. Even in the quiet moments, the camera just can’t seem to stand still.
This reflects the overdose of energy and the high Shin gets from being with these people and living in New York City. This is what is meant with hazard. It’s something inherent of NYC. Something typically American. A rush that you get from feeling that everything is possible and that you can be anyone you want and there are no rules and nobody can stop you and you can never die. In a lot of ways it’s also a lot like being on speed, which is the drug they sell. It’s interesting how Sion anticipated these themes about the American Dream by almost a decade (compared to American auteurs) and how profound and accurate his analysis and “predictions” turned out to be.
Aside from appealing stylistic and thematic story elements, the film presents us with fascinating characters. Hazard is a character study. Like with all of Sono Sion’s films, he once again manages to turn perfectly vile and despicable people into sympathetic and three-dimensional humans. It seems to come naturally to him, actually it seems that he almost prefers these type of characters. He loves them, because they amuse him, they’re funny, they’re not boring like “normal people” who accept the status quo. What makes them likable is, that no matter how wrong and twisted their actions might be, they still posses some sort of moral compass and notions of good and evil.
The more I see his movies the more I’m convinced that there are no “good” characters, but only “less evil” ones. Of course the fact that the viewer is able to root and cheer for these anti-heroes is not only a testament to Sion’s great writing, but also his ability to direct actors. Granted Joe Odagiri is a gifted performer, but there are a lot of minor roles covered by unknown actors, in some cases appearing on screen for the very first time. It’s also not easy for a Japanese director to work with American actors and give them the freedom to act as Americans and not as a “Japanese versions of Americans”.
Sion’s greatest achievement with Hazard is that he remains an outsider to American society. He’s not telling a story about Americans living in America, but that of a Japanese man going to America for the first time and experiencing the country with no or little knowledge of it. By doing that he avoids creating a vision of America that is untrue to the country. He’s not saying that he knows the US, he’s merely showing how little Japanese people know about America. In a lot of ways Shin expected too much from America. He thought that his life would be automatically better if he just moved to the States.
What Shin didn’t realize was that any problems he had in Japan would simply travel with him to the US. He moves to the States, but he immediately closes himself in a Japanese microcosm, a three person ghetto, because he can’t fit in with American society. He’s just too different. He can leave Japan physically, but Japan will always remain inside him, inside his heart. He will always be Japanese. He can’t change that and that’s probably also the reason why he decides to return home at the end of the film. He learned a valuable life lesson and experienced a lot of things that made him grow as a person, hopefully.
8 out of 10