SHAMO is a weird 2007 manga adaptation that I stumbled across on DVD and gave a chance because it’s from Cheang Pou-soi, the excellent director who later did MOTORWAY and SPL 2: A TIME FOR CONSEQUENCES. This one’s basically an evil version of a karate competition movie. It has many of the beloved traditions of the format, with an underdog finding a mentor, training hard, and getting an unlikely shot in a crooked sports organization. But this is not a good person – he’s introduced as a kid who snapped and murdered his parents, he learns to fight in juvenile detention, he seeks acceptance but not redemption, he gets his way by behaving very dishonorably, including to his loyal friends. I know some people would hate it for that, but to me it makes it a compellingly uncomfortable viewing experience.
Ryo Narushima (Shawn Yue, INFERNAL AFFAIRS, LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN, REIGN OF ASSASSINS, THE GUILLOTINES, THE BRINK) is brought to the Juvenile Delinquent Reformatory, where during roll call Principal Saeki – (Ryo Ishibashi, AMERICAN YAKUZA, AUDITION) – basically the cruel warden character – sees him and says, “So you’re the scum who killed your own parents?” Ryo seems to be infamous from tabloids, like the Menendez Brothers or someone like that. The other inmates hang him from a rolled up sheet in the shower, pull his pants down and rape him. One inmate, Kouhei Fujiyoshi (Chau Ka Sing, from Cheang’s earlier movie DOG BITE DOG) tries to get help, but the principal finds him on the floor and just taunts him and shocks him with the cattleprod built into his cane.
Ryo’s sister Natsumi (Pei Pei, also in DOG BITE DOG) comes to visit him, says she doesn’t remember what happened that day, but that it made her drop out of school and their relatives took her money and apartment. It’s a weird scene with a rain storm going on outside the window, Natsumi holding a rainbow colored umbrella and sucking on a lollipop the whole time. She’s wearing a red tutu and a fuzzy hat with mouse ears, some safety pins, and a button that says “ASK ME HOW I’M LOSING WEIGHT.” She tells him she’s moving away to become a hooker, it’s his fault, she won’t leave her address, and never wants to see him again. Then she says “Farewell, Narushima Ryo” with a smile.
Then one day a cool, chain-smoking karate expert named Kenji Kurokawa (Francis Ng, THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR, EXILED) is bussed in from an adult prison to teach the inmates karate. He happens to get there at the right time to see five guys breaking a urinal with Ryo’s head, and then him trying to slit his own throat on its jagged edge. During the first karate class Ryo just lays on the ground with blood all over his face. Kurokawa kneels down, blows smoke at him, asks “Wanna learn karate?,” and teaches him how to do a straight punch. In a demonstration Ryo manages to hit one of his frequent bullies hard in the face, and his life is changed.
He practices in his cell, learns new moves, does pushups. Kurokawa talks to him from another cell with instructions like, “Your whirlwind kick needs work. Do 5,000 tonight.” There’s so much training montage in this movie. Always a plus.
The bullies come after him with sticks, a hatchet, a metal club wrapped in barb wire. (Who the fuck smuggles that shit in to a juvenile detention center!?) He dodges, kicks, evades, bites a guy’s nose, pounds the guy’s face in. Making progress.
Kurokawa gets to go into the principal’s office for a chess game, where we learn that he is (or was) a super anti-western conservative who got so into the writings of Mishima he assassinated the prime minister. “You teach Narushima Ryo karate because he reminded you of yourself,” the principal says. “You both committed an unforgivable act.” He has to release Ryo when he becomes an adult, but doesn’t think he deserves to live, so he promises to get Kurokawa released early if he kills Ryo in a fight. Kurokawa does beat him badly, but leaves him alive for ambiguous reasons.
So they let Ryo out. We find him long enough later for his hair to be grown back and bleached blond. He’s watching a fighting league called Lethal Fight on TV while getting a blowjob. The twist is that he’s a gigolo and the woman is paying him for it. “Time’s up,” he says.
She makes fun of him for dreaming of beating the champion Sugawara Naoto (real life champion kickboxer Masato) and then for being the guy who killed his parents. And he hits her. Any time he’s in danger of getting some of our sympathy he throws it away.
He goes to a strip club looking for his sister. She’s not there, but a dancer named Megumi (Annie Liu, INVINCIBLE DRAGON) tries to pick him up, and he hits her too, cutting her cheek with a bracelet he got from his sister.
During a chase with some pimps (long story) he runs into a stadium where the Lethal Fight is going on, and he ends up fighting a bunch of thugs there. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this: Sugawara is in the ring fighting and in the same shot we (and he) see the silhouettes of people fighting in the stands.
He’s outnumbered, and he loses. The bigshots who run the fights show him on the Jumbotron, beat up and with his pants pulled down. Sugawara steps over him on his way out, which Ryo does not seem to take well. Security throws him out, rolling down cement stairs, where Fujiyoshi (Ryo’s only from the reformatory) runs up to help him.
I’m not sure if Fujiyoshi saw Ryo on TV and came to find him, or if he’s been his buddy on the outside already, but in the next scene he’s wearing a helmet and knee and elbow pads attacking the strip club with two baseball bats for him. A good friend. A guy named Ryuichi Yamazaki (Dylan Kuo, SKIPTRACE) invites Ryo to his dojo and offers to help him enter the league, rehabilitate his name and eventually take on Sugawara. (I like that it kind of acts like Sugawara is someone he has to get revenge against, when it’s really just the champ he saw on TV and was jealous of.)
Before he can answer, the founder of Lethal Fight and head of something called the Banryu Group, Mochizuki Kensuke (Bruce Leung, THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE, KUNG FU HUSTLE, GALLANTS), walks in, starts talking shit to Yamasaki about his offshoot the New Banryu Group, and starts dueling him. After showing Yamasaki a thing or two Mochizuki walks over to Ryo, talks about how powerful he is, how his group has over 120,000 students and the New Banryu Group has less than 50, and tells him if he beats up Yamasaki he can represent the Banryu Group in the L.F.
In almost any movie the protagonist would do the honorable thing, take Yamasaki’s offer to become a student, and help his underdog group rise up against this asshole Mochizuki. But this is Ryo we’re talking about, and this is SHAMO, so he does the shitty thing, he beats up Yamasaki (who just lost a fight and is still wearing a dress shirt tucked in). As soon as Yamasaki starts to lose, a bunch of his students take off their belts and switch sides. The bums.
So it becomes a competition movie. Meanwhile, that dancer Megumi gets to slap Ryo and berate him for hitting women, but then she starts a relationship with him. She says she ran away from home to become a prostitute but no one came looking for her like he did for his sister, so she wants to be his sister. He responds by kissing her.
By the way, I want to mention the garish all-over print hoodie he wears for much of the movie. It’s a collage with all kinds of faces, including Biz Markie! I think I saw Snoop on there too. It reminds me of that movie ABDUCTION where Scott Adkins had to steal some clothes while on the run and got stuck wearing a ridiculous jacket. But this guy wears it on purpose.
Mochizuki really let him into the L.F. just to fuck him over. News footage about his murders play as he enters the ring, making the crowd hate him. He takes a serious beating from a muay thai fighter but makes an unlikely comeback… so Mochizuki announces that he hurt his opponent too bad, “has seriously violated the spirit of the match,” and is banned.
To change Mochizuki’s mind, Ryo does the most unforgivable thing we see him do in the movie: break into Sugawara’s mansion and terrorize his girlfriend (Terri Kwan, THE HEIRLOOM), making him believe he raped her, so he’ll demand a fight. Sugawara should probly be the good guy.
Ryo tries training by getting hit with a bat, but then his old mentor Kurokawa shows up in a white suit, smoking a cigar and sipping whiskey, does some of the more preposterous and philosophical training methods I always enjoy, starting with having him fight against a reflection of the moon in a puddle. He gives Ryo “some kind of steroids,” which he injects without a thought despite warnings of numerous terrible side effects. Ryo also does pullups on the Tokyo Tower!
Megumi helps by setting him up for a big brawl at a construction site, for which he chooses to wear some kind of marching band jacket?
He breaks his arm, but Kurokawa takes him out to some woods to fight and learn about fear and pain or whatever. There’s a part I misunderstood as Ryo purposely snapping his own arm and Kurokawa being so disturbed he pukes blood on a Buddha statue. But I guess actually Ryo was breaking his cast off (see also: FURIOUS SEVEN) and the blood was because Kurokawa was dying and was given a compassionate release and (I believe) wants to die in a fight with Ryo. Samurai shit.
Toward the end there’s a big reveal that (SPOILER) he didn’t really kill his parents – his sister did, she is mentally ill and was being molested by their dad, so Ryo took the blame for her, and she blacked out and didn’t know that. I wondered if it was something like that, because the initial scene and flashbacks of the murders are very ambiguous, but then he’s such a bastard throughout the movie. I guess it shows that the penal system and/or treating a person as scum will not make them better, but do the opposite.
If you need to have some reason to feel for these characters on some level, I think it’s that they find kinship in their fellow dregs of humanity. They feel hated by the world so it’s profound to find someone who seems to like them. Ryo still doesn’t treat his friends well, but he needs them and seems to think he’s fighting for them when he says, “After I beat Sugawara, no one will despise us anymore.” I don’t think he’s right about that, though.
I had to research this to figure it out, but Shamo is a breed of chicken in Japan that’s used in cockfighting. There are a few times when Kurokawa compares Ryo to a fighting chicken, in case we’re not clear who the Shamo is here.
The manga series was written by Izo Hashimoto and illustrated by Akio Tanaka. It was serialized starting in 1998 and discontinued the same year the movie came out, at which point the two sued each other over who was really the creator. Then it returned from 2011-2015. Hashimoto is also a filmmaker (he co-wrote AKIRA and directed EVIL DEAD TRAP 2, among many others), so he wrote the screenplay for this. Weirdly he seems to have retired from movies after that. It was all building toward SHAMO.
This is not an envelope-pushing martial arts film in the way that SPL 2 is, but it’s got some good karate (martial arts director: Jack Wai-Leung Wong, HERO, KILL ZONE, LEGENDARY ASSASSIN, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, WOLF WARRIOR 2), and a different sort of unorthodox spin on the genre. It’s well made, with some nice visuals and atmosphere, and an aggressively noisy theme song that bangs you in the face at the beginning and end but politely leaves you alone in between. I liked the reoccurring nature imagery, even though I couldn’t decode it: the cicada on the tree outside during the murders, the crows cawing outside the reformatory, the snail that Kurokawa picks up off the ground while smoking outside, the trees and swirling leaves of his final training session.
I think it’s interesting for the same reason it’s hard to recommend to anyone: we’re not used to seeing movies where you feel bad about it if you accidentally root for anyone. It’s uncomfortable for a story to be so unmoored from any idea of morality. Even MANIAC or something like that there’s morality in the fact that you know you’re watching a monster. Ryo is something of a monster but he’s slotted into this sports narrative where it just feels natural to root for the main guy. I doubt they were trying to make this particular statement, but there’s some truth to depicting professional sports as a corrupt, exploitative enterprise, squeezing every lost drop of honor out of once great traditions, making a few talented people rich and famous but treating them as more grist for the mill.
I like the idea of a sports competition movie with a mouth full of bile instead of blood sweat and tears. Ryo’s version of the ROCKY ending is (SPOILER) that he gets counted out but somehow stands back up. And also Sugawara punched him so hard that all the bones in his hand cracked in a cgi version of the x-ray bonebreaking in THE STREET FIGHTER.
There’s no glory to be found here. That’s some other movie. This is SHAMO.