Critics too often only acknowledge the notion of world-building when they’re tackling a sci-fi film. It makes sense, since those films more frequently rely on creating a fully formed, consistent universe than something like a cheesy action procedural. But all fiction creates artificial worlds, even if they try very hard to stay true to our own. That, to me, is where believability plays its biggest role. Even in a world decidedly unlike our own, characters have to retain something resembling human behavior, even if they run at emotional extremes. I wouldn’t believe Antonio in The Bicycle Thief would go down to his basement in search of a duffel bag filled with guns before going on the hunt for the man who stole his bike. Conversely, I wouldn’t believe Lieutenant Crowe (Charles Bronson) would glumly wander the city with his son.
All of that has to do with the worlds these characters occupy. Antonio’s world edges far closer to realism than anything involving Charles Bronson. Crowe lives in a variation of Los Angeles so racially charged, it makes 2005’s Crash look like 1984’s Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. To give some context for the kiddies, the second half of the 1980s saw an enormous influx of Japanese businesses in the United States. They looked at the way we ran our corporations, and the things we made, looked at the problems, and bested us. Thanks to a combination of loosening regulations and increasing import tariffs, Japanese companies came stateside en masse, bringing their own employees and executives to fill many positions. This is reflected in a handful of films made during the time period, though arguably the least racist portrayal is Die Hard, which simply uses a Japanese company as a backdrop, without commenting on the horrors of the “Japanese invasion.”
Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects is all about the horrors of the Japanese invasion. To his credit, writer Harold Nebenzal doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to Crowe. He allows Crowe to be angry, sanctimonious, and casually racist toward “the Orientals,” but he doesn’t let Crowe off the hook. Plenty of characters point out his racism, but Crowe can’t control himself. Here’s some more context, though the film doesn’t delve deeply into it: Many people of Crowe’s generation had a vituperative hatred toward the Japanese. They lived through Pearl Harbor, and many (including Crowe, and Bronson in real life) served in World War II. Forty years of peace and prosperity didn’t change that ingrained hatred of an enemy. I’m not saying this excuses Crowe’s behavior, and neither does Nebenzal, but to pretend an entire generation of people didn’t feel the same way about the Japanese as many currently do about anyone from the Middle East is whitewashing historical reality.
At any rate, half of the story follows Crowe’s efforts to pursue a deviant named Duke (Juan Fernández), who picks up underage girls and transforms them into prostitutes. Since this is the world of a Charles Bronson film, it shouldn’t surprise you that Duke goes to such seemingly innocuous venues as arena football games and sunny, family-filled public parks to scout potential prostitutes. His perpetual sneer and binoculars would make him stick out like a sore thumb anywhere else, but not in the world of Charles Bronson.
The other half of the story revolves around Hiroshi Hada (James Pax), a Japanese immigrant raised in a culture of sexual deviance. According to the movie, all Japanese men are turned on by hyper-violent hentai (pornographic comics) and by digitally violating women on crowded subway trains. Also according to the movie, all Japanese women are docile and accepting of such oppressive, abusive thoughts. In a handful of particularly disturbing moments, Hiroshi’s two daughters discuss The Way Things Are. Younger Setsuko (Michelle Wong) doesn’t think Hiroshi should cheat on his wife so frequently or so overtly; older Fumiko (Kumiko Hayakawa) shuns Setsuko for her views, urging her to realize a woman’s place in society. Hiroshi provides for the family and makes a good living—he should be rewarded by getting to bang the bejesus out of whomever he desires.
When Hiroshi and his family movie to Los Angeles, it’s no surprise that Hiroshi’s deviant ways don’t play well with American women. The call girls provided by his American business clients don’t take his abuse with gentle good humor; they fight back, verbally and physically. Desperate to get his rocks off, Hiroshi decides to reenact what he’s witnessed on many a subway car. He sticks his hand up the skirt of a teenage girl on a bus. Coincidentally, that girl happens to be Crowe’s teenage daughter, Rita (Amy Hathaway), and she doesn’t stand there and take it like the Japanese women Hiroshi is used to. She screams and runs off the bus. Others try to corner Hiroshi and hold him until the police arrive, but he manages to get away—and immediately gets mugged.
Because Rita can’t identify her abuser (they all look the same to her), nothing happens to Hiroshi. The incident further fuels Crowe’s disdain for “the Orientals,” so things get complicated when Fumiko gets kidnapped, Duke is identified at the scene, and Crowe is forced to work with Hiroshi to get her back and take down Duke once and for all.
Some might laugh at the depiction of Japanese culture here, but it’s no less silly or over-the-top than the portrayal of American culture. The movie works for two main reasons. First, as is often the case with Bronson’s late-period work, Nebenzal and director J. Lee Thompson create a crazy world that’s consistent within its own set of strange rules. In my review of Death Wish 2, I described it as “a paranoid fever dream where all the fears of the elderly have come true.” That about sums it up.
The second thing that helps the film succeed, strangely, is its subject matter. The film paints both Japanese and American culture in broad strokes—but its heart is in the right place when it comes to its attempts to explore the endemic problems of sexual abuse of children and the pervasive culture of silence surrounding it and its effects. The film, perhaps unfairly, targets Japan as a nation where sexual depravity runs rampant because of cultural reinforcement (in that men are applauded for using women as playthings, while women are shunned if they speak out against the things men do). To its credit, the film doesn’t really portray the U.S. as much better when it comes to depravity, but it does suggest that our cultural dominance of yelling loudly when bad things start happening is perhaps the best solution to the sexual abuse problem.
Well, maybe not the best solution. Kinjite‘s best solution involves a murderous claw-crane and lots of gunplay. In many ways, it’s the same sort of gloriously absurd Bronson vehicle we’d come to expect from him by 1989. It’s elevated primarily because of its subject matter, even though it’s handled in the same sort of wildly over-the-top way as gangs and drugs in the Death Wish series. The film may not have all the right answers, but it raises questions worth asking.