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Maiku Hama:Private Eye Trilogy
Director Kaizo Hayashi and writer Daisuke Tengen (Shohei Imamura's son and writer of such films as Audition and The Eel) crafted a fun trilogy of films built around a character that would prove to be popular enough to get some further life on video and tv. The Maiku "Mike" Hama films always give a slight wink to their genre foundations. Noir is noir. It doesn't matter if it is Chinese, French, American, or Japanese, the style doesn't need any specific language or face. But, this is self conscious noir with a young, down on his luck detective with a projection room office in a run down movie theater.
In the first film, The Most Terrible Time in My Life (1994), we first see that Yokohama P.I. Maiku "Mike" Hama (Mystery Train's Matsatoshi Nagase) has the luck of Wile E. Coyote. When he injects himself into a tussle between a thug and a Taiwanese waiter in gambling parlor, he's the only person who gets hurt. The result is a severed pinky finger that Maiku's buddies have to coax from the mouth of a dog so he can get it reattached. Yang, the waiter, feels a sense of debt to Maiku and enlists Maiku's skills to find his older brother who emigrated years prior but disappeared. Suspiciously, someone kills the thugs that accosted Maiku and Yang, going so far as to lop off their fingers. As Maiku tracks Yang's brother he begins to rustle a new breed foreigner gangster ("The New Japs"), who are making their mark on the underworld and are none too pleased with Maiku's prodding into their affairs.
The Most Terrible Time in My Life is a capable throwback to the snazzy super cool 1960's Japanese rebel set crime films. Maiku shuffles around the city in a porkpie hat gleaning information from his various streetwise connections. Like most great noir detectives, he gets the tar beaten out of him. Be it gagsters or his mentor (a nice cameo by Branded To Kill's Jo Shishido), Maiku constantly gets slapped around. It's a wonder he isn't in a full body cast by the films end. But, important thing is, he may never catch a break but he still retains his cool.
In Stairway to a Distant Past (1994), things haven't changed much for Maiku- still working out of an office/movie house projection booth, still barely supporting himself and his sister, losing his car to loan sharks, basically, still unlucky. His latest assignment has Maiku looking for some rich woman's lost dog. His detective skills are put to work scouring dog parks and putting up fliers featuring the missing pooch.
But, Maiku finds himself caught in a much more dangerous plot when Dynamite Sexy-Lily reappears in town. She is, after all, the mother he has disowned, going so far as to tell his sister that their mother was dead. Maiku becomes involved in the war between the riverfront gangsters. The crime boss who controls the riverfront is the mysterious and deadly Man in White (veteran Eiji Okada- Hiroshima mon amour, Woman in the Dunes- looking a little worse for wear in his next to last film). Dealing with diamond robbers, crooked detectives, and finding out that the king of criminals may be your father... not a good week if you are Maiku Hama.
The Trap (1995) begins with Maiku finally getting some good fortune. His sister is doing well and going to start college. He's got a girlfriend in the mute and devout Catholic Yuriko. And, as far as work goes, a writeup in the paper has lead to increased business. But, the appearance of a masked stranger in his office and some crimes involving abducted women, found days later, poisoned and propped in public places, leads to more trouble for Maiku. He finds himself framed for the murders and must figure out the trail to the real killer before he is caught by the police or the vindictive killer gets to Maiku's new girlfriend.
I'm going to lump my opinion of the last two films together because they both sort of stray a bit from the fun attitude of the first film. While they do have plenty of little jokes and comedic touches, the stories have a darker strain to them and they just don't quite have the same vibe as the first film. Maiku has to deal with much grander (discovering his crimelord father) and dire (twisted serial killers) things than being a small fry lost in the underworld. Yeah, the follow up films are still pretty cool, Maiku Hama is a great role, he has a good cast of characters surrounding him, but the sequel films swim in the wake of the superior first film.
The DVD: Kino
Picture: All of the films are presented in Non-Anamorphic Widescreen. The Most Terrible Time in My Life is in black&white; the other films are in color. These transfers don't exactly do the films justice. The Trap looks the best of the bunch in terms of sharpness and vivid color details. Still, every film suffers from low res, compressed, and bad flagging artefacts which make the films murky and bring up issues like ghosting.
Sound: 2.0 Stereo, Japanese language, optional English subtitles. Sound quality is straightforward. Not exactly exceptional but gets the job done. Each film has a beboppin' soundtrack. Dialogue is clear, and the subtitle transitions are quite good.
Extras: Each film has Trailers, a Stills Gallery, and Cast&Crew profiles.
Conclusion: I reviewed the first film when it came out, really liked it, but gave it a rental based on the DVD quality. Now that first film is packed along with the sequels, the transfer quality hasn't changed, but, seeing how this is a box set, it might be a decent buy for fans or those that are really intrigued. Of course, if you are on the fence, the price will still be steep, so you may want to give one or two of the films a rental first.