The sequel to the 2019 action hit has problems, but it still delivers the goods.
When we discovered it at the NIFFF 2019, Kan Eguchi’s The Fable stood out as an astonishing accomplishment in terms of action filmmaking: a slow-burn, funny, character-centric manga adaptation sandwiched by a fun opening scene and an astounding, mind-blowing 20-minute action finale that took audience involvement and fight choreography to a new level of creativity. Rarely had a series of scenes made such a big impact in terms of pure spectacle and storytelling through cinematic action. Of course, everyone’s appreciation of the film depended on whether or not they clicked with the main character and the offbeat humour of the film, but the bottom line was that The Fable easily outclassed most action films from 2019. So when the sequel was announced, it was impossible to avoid a certain feeling of anticipation. Will the team manage to recreate this winning formula?
Unsurprisingly, The Fable, Chapter 2: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill, still directed by Kan Eguchi, opens with a breathtaking action scene. Clear editing, inventive set ups, impressive stunts involving a moving van that The Fable must hang on to and drive at the same time (while he tries to save someone trapped at the back of the vehicle)… There’s no doubt whatsoever which film this is the sequel to. Just like in the first part, the opening action scene is not very long, but its impact resonates throughout the story. When this second chapter starts, Akira Sato, aka The Fable, a legendary contract killer, is still on the sabbatical imposed by his boss after he killed too many people in the opening act of the first film. Ordered to lay low and kill absolutely no one until told otherwise, he works as a delivery man for a small design agency. Things start going south when a former mob boss masquerading as a charity owner crosses paths with him. Soon, Sato’s close friends could very well be in mortal danger…
The first film was in part successful because of how it managed to strike a balance between intimate character moments, silly running jokes that humanized the killing machine of a protagonist, and stupefying feats of action filmmaking. It is obvious from the first act of CHAPTER 2 that writer Masahiro Yamaura (whose main credits come from television shows and films such as Ajin: Demi-Human) tried very hard to emulate the structure of the previous installment through the recurring use of similar plot points and comical gags. However, after the opening scene, it takes close to fifteen minutes before we see the protagonist again, as the story instead spends time introducing the new villain. Utsubo, played with moustache-twirling gusto by veteran actor Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, is a comic book villain in the most noble sense of the word: over-the-top, knowingly (almost metatextually) evil, but with a dramatic core motivation. Nothing award-worthy, but an efficient antagonist for Sato, whose character unfortunately does not evolve much over the course of this 2-hour+ sequel. The character traits that worked before still work here, for the most part (his charmingly affable demeanour, his constant chill even in tense or even dangerous situations, his naïve outlook on socially complex aspects of human life), but they all feel like repetition rather than further explorations of his uniqueness.
The heart of the story this time revolves around a young woman named Hinako Saba who lost the ability to walk following a crash which Sato was responsible for. Feeling remorse, he shadows her and attempts to help her walk again. Unbeknownst to him, Hinako lives with Utsubo, and the two men soon make each other’s acquaintance. Sato’s relationship with Hinako is rather touching, even if quite superficial. The strongest scene between them comes extremely late in the film, and perhaps their bond might have felt more tangible had it come a bit earlier. In any case, star Jun’ichi Okada gives it his all as always, and carries a large portion of the film on his shoulders, which means that whether or not you like the film will mostly depend on whether or not you like him.
Unfortunately, everything in this second chapter feels less organic and more forced. There is more melodrama, less insightful and quirky glimpses into Sato’s particular way of thinking, and a subplot about one of Sato’s colleagues (clumsily intertwined with the main arc) that could easily have been excised from the script. It may very well have come from the manga (I haven’t read it), but the way it is written in the film just bogs everything down and dilutes the emotional impact of the already superficial Sato/Hinako storyline.
This is all well and good, but how is the action? First of all, CHAPTER 2 replicates the first film’s structure: one quick but striking opening action scene, and then one massive epic battle in the final act (OK, there’s one little fight in the middle as well), followed by a rather long (but not boring) epilogue. French stunt master Alain Figlarz, who worked on the first film, does not seem to be back this time, and apparently neither are the members of the Jackie Chan action stunt team. It’s unclear why the action department was seemingly overhauled so completely but fear not: on action direction duties are star Jun’ichi Okada himself working as stunt coordinator, with action director Makoto Yokoyama – of Power Rangers and Tokyo Ghoul fame – at the helm.
The resulting set piece is a 15-minute tour-de-force set in an apartment building and the massive scaffolding erected in front of it. The Fable and the army of goons he must face travel in all directions (left, right, up, down) with mesmerizing agility and welcome brutality. One sequence at the beginning of the set piece has The Fable fall with a henchman in the narrow space between two walls, several floors up. The two opponents keep fighting within the vertical corridor until they reach the ground. Mere seconds later, Sato is back up on the scaffolding, fending off more goons than we can count. Just like in the first film, the scene’s stakes lie in the way the filmmakers exploit the setting to create suspense, excitement and even emotions. It’s a roller-coaster of a scene, taking the audience on a ride, dodging sniper bullets and doing parkour while kicking goons down. This scene is something you’ve never seen anywhere else before, a true testament to the film’s team’s dedication to outdoing themselves and pushing a kind of believable and grounded spectacle forward, to new heights. Taken independently from the rest of the film, the scene is pure delight, with one caveat – it’s extremely hard to believe that Sato doesn’t kill anyone this time around, especially the way the scene ends. It’s a pretty big caveat, given that the creativity displayed in the first film stemmed from the fact that Sato could not kill under any circumstances.
In the end, this sequel does not live up to expectations. The problems are mainly to be found in the writing and underutilized characters (notably Sato’s partner Misaki), and even if the action is on par with the absolutely stunning experience that was the first film, it’s hard to come out of the film fully satisfied. That is not to say THE FABLE, CHAPTER 2 is a bad or boring film. It is neither, and fans of action cinema should absolutely check it out when… if it ever becomes available outside Japan.
A word on international distribution: both Fable films are produced by Shochiku Company, the oldest major Japanese film studio (founded in 1895!) operating today, and by Nippon TV, a massive broadcaster. Like all big Japanese studios, they usually make back all of the money they invest in films directly on the local market. This, coupled with the facts that their international sales departments are typically very small (understaffed), and that they ask for very high licensing fees, makes matters particularly complicated. As it stands, Shochiku and Nippon TV (who handle international sales) already recouped their costs for the Fable films and therefore do not need to make more money overseas. Their prices usually prevent small foreign distributors like WellGo USA or Third Window Films from acquiring their titles, therefore leaving it up to potential big players to pay for the distribution rights. The target audience for those two films being relatively small outside Japan, it’s unlikely anyone will bother paying so much money for them, unless someone at Netflix or Amazon really likes them.
THE FABLE, CHAPTER 2: THE KILLER WHO DOESN’T KILL was seen at the 2021 Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival.
THE FABLE, CHAPTER 2: THE KILLER WHO DOESN’T KILL – No international release date
Directed by Kan Eguchi
Still on sabbatical, legendary contract killer Akira Sato, aka The Fable, must contend with an extortion operation lead by a criminal who has a links to his past…