What is the meaning of life? That’s ultimately the main question posed by Junji Sakamoto’s 2020 Japanese film I Never Shot Anyone (Ichidomo Uttemasen 一度も撃ってません).

Starring veteran actor Renji Ishibashi in his first lead role in 20 years, I Never Shot Anyone opens unusually for a noir production by showing us Ishibashi’s character, Susumu Ichikawa (74), in a state of domestic bliss. He owns a nice house in a safe neighborhood. He has a wife who’s still affectionate with her husband in their old age. He has everything that most people spend their entire lives working towards.

But There’s a Twist…

At night, Susumu changes into his black coat and fedora and ventures into a Tokyo entertainment district reminiscent of Shinjuku’s Golden Gai, where he’s widely known as a legendary hitman for hire. Unlike the soft-spoken man at home, the killer version of Susumu smokes, speaks gruffly, drinks at the Y bar and takes assassination assignments from an old friend, a retired public prosecutor. Except… none of this is real. Susumu is actually an unpopular novelist who created this noir persona like a child playing make-belief after seeing one too many Humphrey Bogart movies. A lot of people have bought into his lie but in reality, like the title of the movie signals, he “never shot anyone.”

“His lie will be his immortality”

Ichikawa seemingly does this to immerse himself in the criminal world and add a level of realism to his books but that excuse is hard to buy as even these “realistic” novels haven’t been selling well for a long time. It quickly becomes clear that what Susumu is ultimately after is an escape. Escape from what? All sorts of things. A life he feels is too boring. The real him who is a frail old man that doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of his neighbors. But also, in a way, death itself.

There is a dark cloud of pessimism hanging over Susumu, his ex-prosecutor friend Ishida, and the ex-singer Hikaru he hangs out with. They lament the days gone by, the people around them who have died, and not having much to look forward to. In Susumu’s case, he deals with it by forging a fake legacy for himself, that of a legendary killer, the whispers of whom will continue to spread through the streets long after he’s gone. In a way, his lie will be his immortality, because it definitely won’t be his writing. That is his meaning of life: to be remembered.

The Evolution of Japanese Film Noir

This presents an excellent opportunity for the film’s director Sakamoto to completely revolutionize Japanese film noir. The genre’s evolution in the country is quite interesting. The 1940s were its classic cynical, hardboiled period, represented by, say, Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949). The later decades saw the first generation since the end of WW2 come into their own with a lot of feelings about their country’s participation in the war. This resulted in brilliant and exceedingly brutal crime drama masterpieces like Branded to Kill (1967) starring the recently-deceased Joe Shishido. This could be called Japan’s neo-noir period, which was built upon in the late 20th and early 21st centuries by films of Takeshi Kitano, which humanized their gangsters. But that’s when the genre sadly seems to have stopped evolving.

“All noir films, in some way, excuse or glorify crime and violence”

There’s an unrealized story hidden inside I Never Shot Anyone about a sad man fascinated by the alluring “manly” world of crime that he only knows from fiction, which ultimately ends with him coming face to face with the brutal reality of crime and realizing that it’s not for him. All noir films, in some way, excuse or glorify crime and violence to some degree. The next step in the evolution of the genre is to make that world so uncomfortably violent that the main character has no choice but to reject it, making the audience wonder why we’re so fascinated by it in the first place. It would have to be presented as a place brutally unwelcoming to regular people, a dangerous beast of a world that no one in their right mind would choose over a safe family life. It would take a lot of talent to make that story work without being preachy, but the film’s crew were just the right people to do it.

Is It a Film Worth Watching?

Junji Sakamoto is an expert at both human-driven stories (Strangers in The City) and dark subject matter (Children of the Dark) while Renji Ishibashi has a lot of experience in playing a conman in 20th Century Boys. Then there is screenwriter Shoichi Maruyama, who has many crime films under his belt and understands the genre enough to deconstruct it and take it to the next level. With all these elements, I Never Shot Anyone should have been a signal that Japanese film noir has been reborn for the Reiwa Era.

At first, it feels like that’s what the movie is going for, but it ultimately skimps out on any kind of real violence and cheats a little bit on Susumu’s character. Even though he never actually killed anyone, he got another hired killer to do his dirty work for him, still placing him in the world that he is supposed to be rebuffing. It’s a twist that comes out of nowhere and turns the movie into an awkward comedy of sorts. The acting and some of the ideas in I Never Shot Anyone are great but, in the end, it feels like wasted potential, and that hurts more than if it had been bad from the beginning. Watch it for yourself and see if you feel the same way.