The Noirvember Files: Maiku Hama Private Eye Trilogy
You don’t associate the term film noir with fun very often, but Kaizo Hayashi's Maiku Hama Private Eye Trilogy gets it right. Japanese noir is usually relegated to post-war Kurosawa films, various offerings from Nikkatsu Studios, and of course Seijun Suzuki’s colorful antics. Outside of that, you veer into Yakuza territory, which is another subgenre unto itself.
Nevertheless, Kaizo Hayashi wrote, produced, and directed this three part series centering around the exploits of his creation Maiku Hama, a Generation X answer to the private eye. Hama isn’t a self-styled loner, ala Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer (though the name is an homage); he’s funny, unrestrained, and his soft spot for his sister isn’t the Freudian discordance common with both versions of Scarface (Hama wants to earn enough money to send his sister to a good college).
Maiku Hama is played by the seemingly unimposing Masatoshi Nagase, a novel player with a flair for an energetic performing style. To bolster the “old school versus new school” thematic intonation, genre stalwart Jo Shishido provides comic relief as the grizzled police detective hell bent on berating Hama when he has the chance. After all, can you imagine a private dick without the police haranguing them?
The first installment, aptly titled The Most Terrible Time in My Life is easily the best in the series. Saturated by chiaroscuro-style black and white photography, it's a culturally deanxietized composite of westernized Japanese culture (through and of its movies), channelling a slight critique of Japanese nationalism and immigration. It focuses around Hama being cased with a Taiwanese immigrant looking for his brother, eventually leading into a labyrinthine maze of violent gangsters with curious ideals of cultural identities, turned sideways in the wake of Japan’s bubble economy. The trilogy ascends with second installment A Stairway to the Distant Past, shot in a hazy pastel color palette. Things go sideways when Hama’s estranged mother resurfaces, while a Yakuza who's masquerading as a politician seeks control of a coveted smuggling lake route in control of a mysterious white man since the war. The trilogy's finale The Trap is an odd, but compelling mixture of noir themes, and a more sobering story of a serial killer with a curious proclivity for murdering beautiful women and arranging them in full dress in public spaces. The Trap retains the bright tone of the previous entries (despite the first being in black and white) with a more dangerous atmospheric interpretation.
There’s a particular implacability of the Maiku Hama Private Eye Trilogy, it has the veneer of a playful genre mashup, but holds onto a confident tone of instinctual stylistic devices. Dually violent and playful, with an evolving stratum for each title while consistent among the three, each movie couldn’t look or feel any different, but you can't imagine one without the other.