Japan (2016) Dir. Yuji Shimomura

The title of this Japanese action thriller has a double meaning as it marks the return to the spotlight of cult martial arts star Tak Sakaguchi (listed as simply “TAK” here), after a three year sojourn from acting. Reuniting with former stunt director Yuji Shimomura for the first time since 2006’s Death Trance, Tak’s action hero career is most definitely Re:Born with this violent escapade.

He may look like a simple convenience store clerk but Toshiro (Tak) is actually a former special forces operative known as “Ghost”, a nickname earned for his near supernatural ability to avoid capture and strike his opponents down with unfailing accuracy. Nowadays he prefers to live a humble life with his young niece Sachi (Yura Kondo), although Toshiro is still haunted by dreams of his past life.

Unfortunately that past life is coming back to haunt him for real as Toshiro’s former unit commander named Phantom (Akio Otsuka) is out seeking revenge for Toshiro turning on him during their last mission together. Since the direct approach of sending assassins failed, Phantom takes the underhanded route of kidnapping Sachi, spurring Toshiro into action once more.

It is arguably true that action thrillers don’t really need deep and involved plots to drive them as long as the bombastic set-pieces deliver; Re:Born is a film that unquestionably fits this description to a T. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good, bodies are carved up, bones are broken, fists fly, blades slash, and the claret doth flow – in other words a good time is had by all (well, the audience, naturally).

Despite a cinematic legacy of violent samurai, Yakuza and schlock horror flicks, this type of martial arts based action thriller isn’t a particularly prominent one in Japanese film, making Re:Born something of a novelty in that respect. Maybe it was decided that since every other Asian country has an entry into this genre, Japan didn’t want to be left out and Tak Sakaguchi was just the man to spearhead the revolution.

Sakaguchi’s career path is an interesting one: he began as a martial artist fighting in the Japanese underground scene until he was spotted by aspiring director Ryuhei Kitamura, who cast Tak in his first feature, the cult zombie classic Versus. From there Sakaguchi got steady work in low budget films with the likes of Seiiji Chiba as well as supporting roles in mainstream films like Shinobi: Heart Under Blade and Godzilla: Final Wars.

Better late than never Re:Born can be viewed as Sakaguchi’s belated coming out party, finally getting to show everyone what he is capable of on a larger stage under his own terms. Co-writing the script with Benio Saeki (with Sion Sono getting an advisor credit), Tak infuses a distinct Japanese flavour to the well-worn plot via Sachi’s unwavering philosophical belief in heroes, encouraged by the circumstances under which she and Toshiro came to live together.

No explanation is given as to who Sachi’s father was and his fate; nor is there a detailed backstory for Toshiro’s former soldier pal, blind, heavily scarred, wheelchair bound Kenji (Takumi Saito). When it comes to confronting Phantom, Kenji sends ex-soldier Max (Orson Mochizuki) and pretty boy rookie Masura (Kenta) to aid him.

Add Phantom to the list of screen villains whose motives are so thinly drawn that he comes across as just another genre trope – an embittered megalomaniac burned by the betrayal of one of his flock after they objected to his evil plans. Phantom’s immoral scheme was brainwashing young kids for unexplained but no doubt venal purposes and it was only when Toshiro recognised Sachi that he rebelled against his commander.

The blood connection may be indirect but it is enough for uncle and niece to have forged a strong and loving bond in the wake of any other family influence, and for the audience, with Sachi being as cute as a button, it is just as good as any other excuse for us to see Toshiro go nuclear on Phantom and his cronies.

Where the story treads a familiar path, the action is conversely inventive and full of fresh ideas. Choreographed by Yoshitaka Inagawa, who also appears as a soldier called “Abyss Walker” with skills matching Toshiro’s, the central theme is close range combat, taken to the enth degree with a nifty little scuffle between Toshiro and prim-looking assassin newt (Mariko Shinoda) which takes place inside a tiny phone box!

Elsewhere, Phantom’s mercenaries pop up in a number of everyday guises to try and off Toshiro, utilising many clandestine methods such as phones with blades and bags with guns, none of which are successful. Even in a crowded street Toshiro can literally dodge bullets, dispatch one gunman, dismantle his gun, convert the empty butt into a blade, and slay the original shooter without anyone else getting hurt or even noticing.

Taking cues from the likes of Oldboy and The Raid, there are a few single take set pieces involving Toshiro navigating a parade of killers in succession, usually in confined spaces and against a variety of lethal weapons. Even later on, as the route to Phantom’s hideout means traversing a forest like terrain, the fighting is kept at close quarters with Toshiro and co with their backs against the trees, but the scope of creativity remains high and fresh.

Surprisingly Yuji Shimomura doesn’t direct this as an action thriller, instead creating a tense and febrile atmosphere akin to J-horror in the build-up, which carries over to the action packed finale through the use of flickering lights and tight editing. The fights are all wire and CGI free (aside from the blood), relying purely on the physical adroitness of Tak and the cast for a more authentic experience.

You can see the plot beats coming a mile off but you won’t have seen such brutal, close-up stunning action as in Re:Born, a film that announces very proudly and loudly that Tak is very much back!