One of my current hobbies is searching thrift stores for weird, interesting, or hard-to-find DVDs. With streaming networks dominating the distribution channels, and more and more media disappearing from these networks before ever seeing a hard copy release, I feel somewhat like an archivist hunting for treasure. Albeit, this treasure is not found in majestical labyrinthian lost libraries, but in dusty resale shops that smell like mothballs and motor oil. However, the treasure is no less exhilarating, especially if the DVD is an Asian film that barely saw a North American release.

This week’s haul included the illustrious Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, a 1998 Japanese shoot-em-up film in the vein of True Romance (1993) directed by Katsuhito Ishii (his debut film!). I was sadly unaware of the film until I stumbled across it for $4 buried in a pile of Chinese fighting films (yes, I bought those too). The film stars Toshiko, a shy young woman on the run from her dominating and perverse boss, and Samehada, a flippant gangster on the run from his syndicate after stealing money from them. The two are brought together through hilarious circumstances and grow closer and closer as gang members and an amateur assassin chase them down. Mayhem, violence, and delightfully absurd humor follow. 

Tadanobu Asano, famous for Ichi the Killer (2001), breathes life into Samehada as an irreverent but deadly gangster with a boyish charm. Asano and Ishii would go on to become regular collaborators in Ishii’s subsequent films. Shie Kohinata as Toshiko is absolutely arresting as a young woman with a good heart, but lacking the childish naiveté typically exhibited by such characters. It’s clear she is no stranger to how fucked up life is, but maintains a softness while balancing a wisdom often expressed in penetrating glances and startling comments. The romance between Toshiko and Samehada is light-hearted throughout the film, despite the violence surrounding them, and though they admittedly barely know each other, there is a tenderness that draws you into their bubble and pushes you to cheer them on. Without giving anything away, by the conclusion the film even manages to provide profound context as to why these two are drawn to each other. 

But don’t let all this ado about romance put you off—there is much violence and comedy to revel in. Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl is a shining example of the type of tone blending only Asian cinema can produce, where seemingly disparate genres are synthesized seamlessly into a cohesive story without sacrificing the effectiveness of individual elements; dark humor crosses into slapstick, while lovers remain probable, violence teeters between cartoonish and nauseating, and a deeper meaning is achieved with a touch of surreal existentialism amid all this chaos. It’s the kind of film that will leave those uninitiated in Asian cinema saying “What the fuck am I watching?!” 

Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl is peak 90s goodness, with the grotesque cool of Trainspotting (1997) and a humorous brutality Quentin Tarantino can only dream of (is this yet another Japanese film he directly lifted from?). Its North American progeny can be seen in such films as Shoot ‘Em Up (2007) and Lucky Number Slevin (2006) but predates them by almost a decade. The closest American film from the same time that I can think of is The Big Hit (1998) starring Mark Wahlberg, but it doesn’t even begin to achieve the same level of acerbic sincerity amid the comedy. Fans of Asian media will no doubt be able to compose a long list of such films, but watching this 1998 film in 2023 I am struck anew by how ingenious Japanese cinema is and how far ahead of the modern mainstream Hollywood machine it always has been. How does one film contain both the character Sawada, an exceedingly perfect picture of yakuza embodying the very essence of cool, and Yamada, the bumbling amateur assassin that feels like a sociopathic toddler with a gun and a distractingly impressive unibrow?

Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl is a must-see for anyone who is a fan of Japanese cinema, fun shoot ’em ups, or for anyone who wants to watch the reactions of an unsuspecting friend dragged into a movie night. Find it any way you can—streaming or thrift store DVD bin digging—and give it a watch today.


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