Shinya Tsukamoto’s Shadow of Fire begins as a troubling but measured film, but about a half-hour in something happens that shatters its quietude. Suddenly, a man who to this point has been impotent and deferential throws a small boy out a window and begins beating a woman. From the director best-known for Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and whose other films are often similarly stylish and sexually violent, that might not sound like much, but it is precisely the restraint of Shadow of Fire that makes the violence one of the more harrowing moments in Tsukamoto’s growing oeuvre.

Tsukamoto used to make movies at a swift pace: from his 1989 debut Tetsuo to 2011’s Kotoko, a dozen films. Since then, Shadow of Fire is just his third, all three of which (the prior two being Fires on the Plain, adapted from the same book as Kon Ichikawa’s film of the same title, and Killing) are focused in some way on war, and each has taken longer to arrive than the one before. Whether this is a sign of Tsukamoto’s desire to work with bigger tools (he wanted Fires on the Plain to be a large-budget epic, but producers wouldn’t agree), a side effect of leaving an established niche, a symptom of filmmaking’s financial crisis, or some combination of these (and other factors) is not immediately clear, but there is an undeniable level of care evident in Shadow of Fire that Tsukamoto’s cult erotic / horror films often lacked. Films like Tetsuo, its sequels, A Snake of June, and Bullet Ballet are remarkable primarily for their maximalism. Their production design, costuming, makeup, and effects, along with the rapid-fire editing and lack of concern for narrative logistics, make for a visceral viewing experience, but it sometimes feels like the director is less interested in where to place the camera or how to depict an action within the frame than in simply overwhelming his viewer. With Shadow of Fire, an unexpectedly classical style reveals Tsukamoto to be capable of such aspects of direction that are often taken for granted.

Shadow of Fire, set in the aftermath of World War II, concerns the aforementioned makeshift family: a bartender and prostitute (Shuri) who is trying to steer an unnamed orphan (Tsukao Ogo) toward a better life, plus the traumatized veteran (Hiroki Kono) who walks in one night, pays, does not have sex, and then continues to stay the night while vowing to make back his money for it the next day. The first third of the film takes place entirely within that bar and its adjoining room; keeping the space visually interesting is no easy feat, and Tsukamoto effortlessly manages it by changing the time of day when conversations take place, motivating changes in lighting, and finding new places to put his camera and new ways to block the actors. 

As is often the case, some of that ingenuity is lost when the film opens to the outside world and plot begins superseding character relations, but the impressive performance by Tsukao Ogo, who gradually becomes the focal point, keeps things engaging. In the seamlessness of this shift and elegance of the opening third, Shadow of Fire makes clear Tsukamoto could have been a successful commercial director if he had so chosen. What follows is competent––stringing viewers along with a combination of mystery and the possibility of redemption and reconciliation––if unremarkable. While it is to Tsukamoto’s credit that he cares about the backstory only as much as he needs to justify the primary narrative, at the same time it’s tough to say what Shadow of Fire adds to the extensive corpus of Japanese films about the scars of war and unraveling / remaking of a national psyche moving from a collective nationalist loyalty to a more humanist way of thinking. The message this time is clear, but too simple and sometimes too explicit.

Thinking back to the more accomplished chamber drama the film plays in its first act, one can’t help seeing in retrospect. Just as Shadow of Fire is at its best when its setting is more constrained, Tsukamoto is at his most resourceful when he has less to work with. Expansion, like a bigger budget, promises possibility, but offers nothing quite so thrilling as what has already been done with so little.

Shadow of Fire screened at the 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Grade: B-

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