‘A game of two halves’ is always an interesting way of describing a film. Generally it refers to quality; a film can start strong and end weak, or vice versa. Other times it refers to a gear change — a tonal shift, a change in focus from one character to another. Shinya Tsukamoto’s Hokage (Shadow of Fire), on the surface, seems to be such a film. Setting out to tell a story of broken individuals adjusting to life in post-WWII Japan, Tsukamoto tells what seem to be very distinctly different stories from a shared point of view: that of a young thieving orphan (Ouga Tsukao) and survivors of war, with the two unified in their common theme of wounds and shadows cast by warfare.
The aforementioned orphan is introduced stealing from a young prostitute (Shuri) and inadvertently becomes a regular visitor and eventual resident of the little pub diner she lives in. They are joined by a young, softly spoken soldier (Hiroki Kono) and soon the three become a makeshift family. Unfortunately, the new familial bond gradually becomes undermined by the soldier’s PTSD, a manifestation of the horrors of war they have all endured from the firebombings in the area.
Tsukamoto crafts this first half of Hokage (Shadow of Fire) as a chamber piece, almost like a play at points where characters venture in and out of the pub, but the camera remains within at all times. The way the environment of this cluttered, cramped little diner creates a world within itself is fascinating, providing a space which rationalises the swift way this trio begin relying upon one another for survival.
The way in which the three start interacting like a family is an inspired touch. The young soldier bidding farewell every morning with “I’ll make money for today,” without ever actually managing to find a job is a hilarious recurring bit. The motherly warmth that begins to emanate from the prostitute when interacting with the orphan is also quite moving, especially with some of the revelations that occur. When Tsukamoto lets this situation implode, the effect is quite striking, using shaky camerawork and brutal violence in brief spurts to create a jarring, unforgettable impression in our minds.
Such is the strength of the beginning that the second half pales in comparison. The orphan, due to a series of unfortunate events, finds himself on the road again, tagging along with a street vendor embarking on a mysterious journey. In comparison to the atmospheric way the interior of the pub is captured, the more traditional shots outdoors are less compelling.
The second half never becomes bad, though, and there are some memorable moments particularly in the climax. By the denouement, Tsukamoto’s intentions to show a wide overview of how the horrors of war influenced different people in different ways are clear. As such, Hokage (Shadow of Fire) is a well-crafted film with a potent message, but its execution could have been much more effective had the film chosen to stay with the initial setting longer.