The open scene of the new Japanese martial arts action film Hydra tells you everything you need to know about the movie; stylized florescent lighting, spontaneous and shockingly violent action, an 80’s electronica soundtrack and almost no dialog. Director Kensuke Sonomura and cinematographer Yasuyuki Suzuki have created a beautiful homage to 80’s action films, even with the typeface chosen for the opening credits. Like waking up to a slap on the face, the opening scene grabs the viewer, just to ease its grip as the film settles into the main narrative, just to return to that opening assassination in the latter portion of the film.
The titular Hydra is a small neighborhood bar run by 20-something Rina Kishida (Miu), a business she inherited from her taciturn father when he went missing a few years prior. The bar also employs earnest young waiter Kenta (Tasuku Nagase) and, in the tiniest kitchen you can imagine, tough, quiet Takashi (Masanori Mimoto) as the curiously talented short-order cook.
All is not as it seems, however. Hydra is populated by locals who stop by for their favorite beverage and a bite, almost like a Japanese “Cheers”, but there’s also a creepy older guy Keiji (Hironobu Nomura) who definitely has an unhealthy interest in Rina, along with just about every other young woman in the place. He’s bad news even as he’s charming and seems kind and thoughtful. Worse, he’s a cop.
But it’s short-order cook Takashi who has the biggest secret: He’s a highly trained, retired hitman who has secretly promised Rina’s father that he’d keep an eye on her and make sure she stays safe. As is explained as the story unfolds, his relationship with Rina’s father is complicated and definitely a contributor to his existential angst and standoffish personality.
Lots of action films try to pull off neo-noir “cool” but Hydra actually succeeds. The dialog is sparse but snappy – in particular, the conversations at the bar itself have great verisimilitude, very much what you would expect to hear if you walked into a bar tucked into a Tokyo alley.
It’s really the lighting and cinematography that make the film hum, however, endlessly vibrating like neon reflections in the rain.
Takashi wasn’t a freelance hitman, he worked for the ironically named Tokyo Life Group Co. The idea that there are organizations hiding in plain sight that are assassinating bad people who otherwise cannot be eliminated by government agencies is endlessly fascinating. Unlike American assassination-from-within films that wallow in their gritty point of view, Hydra is more akin to a stylish manga story, with oversaturated neon lighting, tight framing, sparse dialog, and an endlessly casual approach to even the most violent events.
And in the end, while Hydra is promoted as a martial arts film, the few actual fights are the least engaging part of the movie. Yes, they’re impressive, fast, precise, and suffused with balletic elements, but this is a rare martial arts actioner where it’s the characters that propel the story, not the fights.
I really enjoyed Hydra and recommend it to fans of both art films and action films. Be warned, there’s less action than you might expect given its billing. Instead, this is a master class in the style of cinema and while a few of the more violent scenes will turn off more sensitive viewers, the overall feel of Hydra is darn impressive. Recommended. Japanese, with English subtitles.
Dad At The Movies Note: This is not a film for younger audiences. Sonomura uses a complex narrative style unfolding the story, but more than that, the film is really violent in a few scenes (including the opening assassination). It’s shocking to jaded adults and will undoubtedly be quite upsetting to younger or more sensitive viewers.