Strangely, Toei didn't present capital dwellers with much of a choice. Although the Fujiwara Tatsuya actioner was released in regional multiplexes throughout the country on July 5th, only three cinemas in Tokyo City's 23 screen-replete wards came to the party. Variety Japan explained why:
...distributor Toei has put together a unique theatre market for it with Tokyo's Shinjuku Wald 9 multiplex as the primary venue. This configuration of cinemas represents something of a new direction for the company, which has worked mainly with theatres specialising in domestic films through a system called block booking, and its outcome will be keenly observed.
In contrast with the growing trend of wide releases spread across an array of Tokyo mini theatres, this set-up involves a combination of Tokyo multiplexes and cinemas owned and operated by Toei as well as regional cinema complexes. Similar arrangements have been attempted before, but the results have generally been underwhelming. This has largely been due to the mismatching of films and markets.
A proper screening environment alone isn't enough to make a dent in the box office. However, what's important to note this time around is that the film that's been booked is well-suited to its release pattern.
Releasing "Chameleon" simultaneously around the country in theatres specialising in Japanese films would have been a tricky proposition, but with a limited market of three inner-city Tokyo cinemas and a selection of multiplexes, it just might be able to fulfil its potential to the fullest. The idea of Sakamoto Junji directing a script written by Maruyama Shoichi for the late Matsuda Yusaku is a perfect fit for Toei. As a contemporary outlaw film, you can sense its high potential.
Previously, Toei owned a distribution company called Toei Central Film and built up its own market of theatres outside those dedicated to local product, generating starring vehicles for Matsuda and independent films to create a new era. "Chameleon"'s close connection to Matsuda ramps up interest even further. In terms of content and promotion, it could prove to be the most challenging of Toei's recent output.
"Chameleon" snuck stealthily into cinemas with relatively little in the way of promotion since its initial introduction in the press months ago (this also seems to have been the case with Kore-eda Hirokazu's brilliant "Even If You Walk and Walk" (Aruite mo Aruite mo), which also opened with minimal fanfare). Perhaps that's partly because Fujiwara isn't seen as an actor who can 'open' a film (regardless of his female fanbase and the success of the "Death Note" franchise), especially not this self-styled throwback to the good old days when men were men and locally-made action films weren't viewed as box office anathema.
Here, as a scam artist with a mysterious past that includes stints as a mafia bodyguard and apprentice mercenary, the flyweight Fujiwara is severely miscast and no amount of back story and hackneyed cigarette posturing is going to transform a rail-thin babyface into a charismatic arse-kicker. Although he only looks convincing when up against someone his own size - who unfortunately happens to be the sole female thug - the action scenes manage to achieve some degree of realism due to their gimmick-free simplicity and chaotic choreography in which no-one is left unhit. Director Sakamoto deserves recognition for allowing the brawls to breathe by shooting them from mid-distance and cutting only when necessary, but it's action director Nikamoto Tatsumi who really deserves the credit. As a veteran of Sonny Chiba's Japan Action Club who became a fight choreographer after catching Matsuda's eye and the man responsible for Kitano Takeshi's "Zatoichi", it's his expertise that brings the film closest to recapturing the glory days of old. Unfortunately the film peaks too early, with its exciting action centerpieces of a warehouse siege and demolition site car chase (you heard me, an actual car chase!) far surpassing the final anti-climactic raid on the villains' lair, for which Fujiwara's character commits the last of his fashion crimes in switching to stunna shades and standard-issue black trenchcoat (the latter is at least justified in the last scene, despite what Twitch's review says).
Direction, script and performances all fall uniformly in the 'adequate' basket and there's nothing here that you haven't seen done recently with more style and originality in Hong Kong or South Korea, not counting its novel assertion that taking several sniper rounds in the back isn't necessarily lethal. Then again, it's not bad enough to make you ask for your money back and it won't lose much in translation to DVD except perhaps from some knuckle-crunching sound effects. I can't help wondering if it could have been improved by casting Fujiwara and the more effective but under-utilised lead heavy Toyohara Kosuke in reverse, but that would only further emphasise its low budget V-cinema aesthetic. Would talent agencies even be willing to take a risk on someone like Matsuda Yusaku today?