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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
A film about prostitutes, drugs, and a serial killer shouldn’t be this boring

A film about prostitutes, drugs, and a serial killer shouldn’t be this boring

Screenshot: Breaking Glass Pictures (YouTube)
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The condemned: She’s Just A Shadow (2019)

The plot: There’s a fairly straightforward plot lurking within She’s Just A Shadow. Two, actually: one about a serial killer murdering prostitutes in modern-day Tokyo, and another about the slow spiraling out of control involving men selling drugs and a woman pimping prostitutes, as they lose their souls amid the unpleasant business of their profession. Or rather, these would be straightforward stories, if they could be bothered to come out from behind all the naked women dancing, drugging, and making themselves sexually available to any man on screen. I don’t remember exactly when I realized just how much She’s Just A Shadow dislikes women, but it was somewhere between the first time the lead character gets raped by her boyfriend and explains it away by saying that “really, we loved each other” and the scene where a prostitute, about to be murdered by a serial killer who tied her up on the train tracks to be annihilated by an oncoming locomotive, screams at the disturbed man who has just ended her life, “You didn’t even fuck me!”

Oh, wait, no: I forgot the moment when the male protagonist of the film informs the audience—via helpful voice-over narration—of the philosophy that guides him, and the movie: “Women. No matter how human they seem? They’re not. They’re just shadows. But on the other hand, aren’t we all?” That was when I realized how deeply baked into She’s Just A Shadow its misogyny is. I’m guessing the filmmakers would take umbrage with my conflating the worldview of its misanthropic lead characters with their movie’s perspective. If so, they maybe should’ve lingered a little less gratuitously on the writhing, naked bodies of its largely interchangeable women, and given them a few more personalities to distinguish one from the next.

Instead, it’s like this: The day after one of the prostitutes in murdered, another of her friendly kindly volunteers to go find her and see what’s actually going on. Smash cut to this sympathetic woman, who was just hoping her friend was still alive, being murdered on the train tracks by the serial killer, like a shitty punch line to a bad cosmic joke. Which is sadly fitting: These women are just jokes to this movie. Sadly, I think She’s Just A Shadow thinks that’s the point: We’re all just destined to be vague semblances of humans to each other, man.

The plot, such as it is, unfolds in halting and half-assed manner, in between orgies and nude psychedelic drug sequences. If you miss something at any point, don’t worry—the characters will probably repeat the same words, and possibly even remind you of their motivation for saying it, again in a few minutes. Irene (Tao Okamoto) is a madam who runs a brothel/prostitution ring, and is in a relationship with Red Hot (Kentez Asaka), a cocaine-addicted gangster whose partner, Gaven (Kihiro), has just helped him steal a suitcase full of coke from a bunch of criminals. Unfortunately, the suitcase belongs to Tokyo’s other gangster bigwig, Blue Sky, who runs the drug trade on the other side of the city. As the film progresses, tensions from this original cross-gang crime escalate, until an attempted revenge explodes the scene into full-blown war between the competing enterprises.

At the same time, a serial killer is offing Irene’s women, capturing them and doing heinous things before tying them up and leaving them on the railroad tracks to be pulverized—filming the grisly deaths and uploading them to the internet. Meanwhile, Gaven is in increasingly rough shape—too much drinking and drugging—and dreams of escaping the city with his girlfriend, Tanya (Haruka Abe). Of course, he doesn’t want it so badly that he’ll stop drinking, drugging, and sleeping with basically anything that moves. By the end of the film, the serial killer has targeted Irene and her enterprise, eventually killing most of her women and Red Hot. Tanya is tricked into killing herself by Gaven’s other jealous girlfriend, leaving Gaven to blow his brains out upon discovering the body, and Irene finally takes revenge for all the deaths by going undercover as a restaurant cook and serving the killer a poisoned plate of noodles and soup. This all takes almost two hours. It’s exhausting.

Over-the-top box copy: “A gangster fairytale,” reads the Blu-ray case, though “fairy tale” tends to mean something magical or idealized. While you could certainly argue the reality of She’s Just A Shadow is more of a bizarre dream state than any plausible world we know, there’s nothing idealized or magical about it. Presumably that tagline played better than the more accurate “An exhausting hellscape of naked women and drugs that makes you realize just how unpleasant those things can be under the right circumstances.”

The back of the DVD also manages to scare up someone willing to say, “Whether or not one is seduced by the sensual appeal of it all, it’s impossible to deny that this is a cinematic masterpiece.” If someone finds this movie sensual, that is worrying. Though, whoever put together the DVD was also confident enough in the film to include a line from the San Francisco Chronicle calling it “one of the worst films of the decade.” All press is good press, I suppose. (All press is not good press.)

The descent: Honestly, whoever cut the trailer deserves a medal, because they made this movie look enormously appealing. Watching it again above, I’m struck by how much it sells the idea you’re about to witness a Tokyo-set variant on Goodfellas, with leading lady Irene leading the viewer through a distaff psychedelic variant on that classic gangster narrative. Its candy-coated slickness really made the case there could be a warped noir diamond hiding in the low-budget, wannabe-arthouse rough. If nothing else, there are a number of shots in the film that suggest a director and cinematographer who know how to compose a striking image. This is also why trailers for Zack Snyder films tend to be really good.

The theoretically heavenly talent: Okamoto is the biggest name here. You’ve almost certainly seen her before, whether as Mariko in The Wolverine, or Lex Luthor’s personal assistant, Mercy Graves, in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, or in recurring roles in Westworld, The Man In The High Castle, and Hannibal. Unfortunately, she gets sidelined for large sections of She’s Just A Shadow, probably because she’s not naked and/or doing copious amounts of drugs, and therefore the camera isn’t that interested in her. Kihiro is a J-rock singer making his film debut, so fans of the band Loka might have heard of him; as an actor, he makes for a terrific singer.

The execution: It feels cheap to start the assessment of She’s Just A Shadow with something as lazy and slapdash as, “Hoo boy, where to start?!” Then again, given the slapdash nature of this film, maybe that’s entirely in keeping with the spirit of the project. It’s rare enough to find a movie that makes you actively start to dread any scene involving nudity, sex, or drugs—stark visual imagery that’s usually inherently intriguing, albeit in a prurient, clinical, or lascivious way; it’s even rarer to have one hit you over the head with so many repetitive, dyspeptic instances of same that you find yourself writing things in your notes like, “OH GOD HOW CAN WE ONLY BE 1/6 OF THE WAY THROUGH THIS.” Here’s the movie in a nutshell:

Definitively putting an end to the formerly sound idea that nobody puts a scene in a movie for no good reason, this film includes enough pointless curlicues of meaningless pseudo-drama to make you question whether Andy Warhol’s hours-long static-shot films were actually masterpieces of plotting and editing. And unlike previous Home Video Hell disasters of meandering crap, like Knights Of The Damned or Campin’ Buddies, which were ugly as sin but knew enough to get in and get out in the least amount of time possible, She’s Just A Shadow feels fucking endless; it clocks in at nearly two hours, but your conception of time will have reached the event horizon long before then, your brain splaying out all eternity as an ongoing series of gauzily lit pastel-and-neon nightmare sequences from this movie. Before we even reach the 15-minute mark, there’s a wearying scene of women showering, apropos of absolutely nothing, which I have not included in clip form below so as not to ruin the idea of attractive naked people showering for you.

Character interactions are a thing of inexplicable horror, as people who have supposedly been friends for eons talk to one another as though they are alien beings from different solar systems that have just arrived on Earth, and are trying to continue whatever awkward small talk they made at the intergalactic meet-and-greet. To wit: Here are ostensible besties Gaven and Red Hot, the former explaining that he might really be dying from partying too hard, and the latter insisting that Gaven could get better quickly if only he would… party harder. But there’s no sense of humor to the disjunction; the conversation is as serious as a car wreck. (And listen for the kicker involving their thoughts on women):

But if the conversations between men in this film are appallingly bad, the cross-gender talks are like B-roll from a lazy Norman Mailer parody, full of laughable tough-guy bravado and assessments of women that fall somewhere between “MRA cartoon” and “Man, that Tucker Max guy was really on to something.” At one point, Tanya says there are two kinds of love, strawberry and Twinkie—both sweet, but the latter can remain stable for decades, while the former rots quickly. “Only a prostitute would say that,” Gaven scornfully replies. Ah, yes, analogies—the sole purview of the prostitute.

But that’s actually one of the more equitable exchanges, in that the former takes the time to listen to the words that are coming out of the woman’s mouth. More often, the men talk at the women, or glibly disregard them, or call them stupid (and to be fair, the movie goes out of its way to let you know most of these women are, like, definitely stupid, dude). This might be considered a commentary on the awfulness of these men, if the film wasn’t simultaneously trying to put pretentious gobbledygook in their mouths and make it sound meaningful. Here’s some dimwitted philosophizing Gaven delivers in voice-over. See if you can connect the dots on his point, because there’s nothing after the end of this clip that continues his train of thought—as far as we know, it’s still boarding at the “life is short” station:

There are so many lines of dialogue like this: Things that don’t actually mean anything, but no one stopped to really think through what their characters were saying. Presumably, they just thought the words sounded cool. Like when Irene tells the viewer, “There’s no real good word for what me and my mom do,” followed by the very next line, “You could say we’re lady pimps.” Huh, I guess there is a good word for what they do. Or take the first 15 minutes, during which Irene says, “It was kinda confusing how I wound up taking over the black market and sex trade of the entire city.” Yes, especially confusing since it doesn’t happen until after the movie ends, and this line is obviously just here because it functions as a kind of “I learned a lot that summer”-style statement meant to guide the narrative, only it doesn’t. It just lies there, limply, wondering why the film bothered to include it at all, given it affects nothing.

That being said, very few films are without some redeeming quality, and in the case of She’s Just A Shadow, it’s the following scene, which is one of the most bananas things I’ve seen in an ostensibly serious film in the past year. It features a character named Knockout (Marcus Johnson), a man who is meant to be a bodyguard of sorts for Red Hot, but who mostly seems to act manic and get wild with the prostitutes. There’s an extended sequence where he’s just taking amateur photographs of all the women, with no explanation. Gaven seems confused by this behavior. I know I sure was. Anyway, here’s a scene that doesn’t tie into anything else: With roughly a half hour of movie left, Knockout goes outside and does the following, with the consequences never again referenced by anyone for the rest of the film. I rewound it, like, four times. Keep in mind, this movie wants to be an arthouse-cool crime noir—and then it drops this craziness:

If the whole movie were just that scene, it would be a lot better. Which is saying something.

Unfortunately, most of She’s Just A Shadow is a painful slog through montages of nude or mostly nude women, to the point where it was difficult to come up with some scenes that would stand out for this feature, because it’s all so interchangeable and messy. This movie makes Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny seem like a model of restraint. The worst is a scene that follows Blue Sky’s men massacring our gang of hoodlums and prostitutes, and which features one of the most unpleasantly protracted death scenes I’ve ever seen put to film. One of the prostitutes dies of bullet wounds, but she lingers on for minutes, expressing agonizing pain, alternated with the desire to kiss our hero, Gaven—because of course that’s what she’d want in her final seconds—before returning to her drawn-out death rattle. It’s hideous. Here’s a small taste, because I couldn’t bear subjecting anyone to more than a minute of this. (God help me, it goes on for more than five.)

I just realized, I haven’t talked about the serial-killer storyline at all. In that case, I’ve done it as much justice as the film does. At one point, the characters see the killer walk into his apartment, and rather than immediately going after him and, say, murdering the psychopath as punishment for all his crimes, they say, “Let’s wait and see what he does.” Guess what he does? Keeps killing more prostitutes, that’s what. Ugh, what a stupid film.

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Oh, god, no. This movie is the pits. It is easily in the bottom rung of films I’ve watched for this feature. If it lives on in any form, it will likely be thanks to that insane disabled-child-and-dog-kicking scene I included above, a meme more than a movie, the same way Mac & Me has endured thanks to its own jaw-dropping scene with a wheelchair-bound kid.

Damnable commentary track or special features? Very much so. There’s a post-premiere Q&A demonstrating the director’s general inability to articulate anything about his film, though it does make the cast seem very likable. There’s also an endless 30-minute-plus “behind the scenes” featurette, during which I realized the director of photography, David Newbert, was also the cinematographer for Danzig’s Verotika. Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a DVD before that included post-film reactions from the audience, as though it were a TV commercial, especially given most of the people seem to be either friends with the cast and crew, or actual members of the production.

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.