Two Japanese survivors of the Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia vow to find a sanctuary, even if they have to build it themselves. Returning to Japan, they take seemingly opposite paths: one becomes a politician, the other a gangster.
As Asami and Houjou work through the linked worlds of politics and crime in modern Japan, they don't hesitate to do anything necessary to secure their own positions and stay true to their vow. Loyal to no one else, they find their friendship increasingly tested as they rise in their chosen fields.
The gods can be quite cruel. For our unnamed protagonist, it’s as if unseen forces, far greater than himself, have conspired against him. What he wants is a simple, peaceful life; however, he’s forced to watch as that door is slammed shut by a vicious twist of fate. Having no other option, our protagonist turns to organized crime. After he acknowledges the situation he’s in, he resolves to make the most of it. His efforts, though, are rooted in humble beginnings. At first, our protagonist is little more than a performer of menial tasks, an errand boy for his superiors, and a victim to their
whims. However, this doesn’t last for long. By relying on a combination of confidence, ruthlessness, and ingenuity, our unnamed protagonist ascends the ranks, earning the higher-up’s trust, as his sights turn towards the top of the food chain…
Stories like this fascinate me. Mobster movies represent a darker rendition of the typical “rags to riches” tale, where sentimental value is replaced by realism. They’re like most underdog-driven narratives, but with characters you don’t always cheer for and ideas you don’t always support. This is the genre that Sanctuary, Studio Pastel’s 1996 film, finds itself in. Almost from the start, Sanctuary tries separating itself from the others through its heavily political focus. As you would expect, the film chronicles a mobster’s rise to power but it also connects this to a larger plotline concerning favoritism. Sanctuary intends to criticize a system that only enables celebrities, bureaucrats, and children of older politicians to advance. Because he despises this practice, the film’s protagonist wants to undermine this system through his mobster influence. Along the way, Sanctuary forms several parallels between the political sphere and the criminal underworld, arguing that they’re equally corrupt.
Unfortunately, these ideas are overshadowed by a director whose vision is trapped inside mobster movie cliches. Characters lounge around and reminisce about old times under shimmering streetlights. Plot details are discussed inside lavish nightclubs and high-rise skyscrapers. Saxophones, pianos, and bass guitars supply the score for a string of sex scenes. The end result is a film that aspires for social commentary but fails to offer anything beyond the glitz and glamour and guns.
Actually, you can ignore the guns. Sure, they’re waved around quite a bit but the guns are never used. At no point in the film is anyone in any real danger, especially not Hojo. As Sanctuary’s protagonist, he provides cigarettes and a comb-over to his role but it’s his unwavering confidence that truly defines him. Hojo’s confidence is portrayed to ridiculous extremes. In a crucial scene during Sanctuary’s latter half, an employer of his requires him to partake in a test of loyalty. As part of the test, Hojo has to stab his hand with a knife without flinching. He not only pulls off the stunt but he also does so with a self-assured smirk; it’s obvious that even this test has failed to penetrate his air of confidence. The scene serves as a microcosm of Hojo’s overall character. No matter what obstacle he faces (whether it’s the police, the corrupt politicians, his deranged older brother, or the mob boss), he not only overcomes them but he’s also completely unfazed by the threat they pose. Because Sanctuary is unwilling to present Hojo with a legitimate challenge, what results is a series of conflicts that aren’t just unengaging but predictable as well. By itself, the lack of dramatic tension is damning material. However, this is merely part of a larger issue with the film.
Earlier, I described the mobster’s rise to power and why I’m fascinated by it. However, there’s a concept that I’m far more interested in: the fall from grace. Our unnamed protagonist has arrived at the summit but he won’t be there for long. Thanks to fame’s trappings, the same traits that fueled his success have changed for the worse. His confidence morphs into arrogance. His ruthlessness swells to surreal heights. And his ingenuity evaporates. Eventually, after burning enough bridges, our protagonist is reduced to nothing. A journey to the mountaintop can be entertaining; however, it’s falling from that same mountaintop that really resonates with me. Personally speaking, it’s captivating to watch someone claw and scratch to attain the finer things in life (fancy suits, fast cars, and high-priced cigars), only for it all to instantly vanish. Ultimately, the mobster’s fall from grace serves as a cautionary tale for members of organized crime; what it does is present the consequences of the lifestyle they lead.
With Sanctuary, though, there is no fall from grace. Matter of fact, there aren’t any consequences here whatsoever.
Take Sakura Shuichi, for instance. He’s a sleazy, sewer-dwelling rat that forces himself upon random women. He’s also a politician affiliated with the National Diet of Japan. So, naturally, when Hojo begins blackmailing Sakura with photos of his misdeeds, he is warned by the mob boss himself to stop. Hojo, however, insists on playing with fire. He tosses log after log into the flames, delighting in the disaster he’s made, before eventually deciding to pour a gallon of oil into the mix. Instead of being disciplined for his reckless behavior, Hojo receives a promotion. For another example, you can refer to Kyoko Ishihara, the police force’s superintendent. When she tries to infiltrate a mobster-owned casino, Kyoko is quickly discovered by Hojo, who drugs and rapes her. He suffers no repercussions from this; in fact, through a mind-boggling turn of events, Kyoko ends up helping him resist a group of kidnappers. Looking at the bigger picture, Hojo decides to become a mobster (or, in this case, a yakuza) and is never faced with the consequences of his choice. When you combine this with the lack of dramatic tension, what remains is a protagonist whose plot armor is powerful enough to neutralize anything, even the after-effects of his own actions.
By glamorizing its subject matter, Sanctuary falls victim to the same aches and pains that plagues every other dime-a-dozen mobster flick. It constructs a narrative of watered-down stereotypes, forgettable encounters, and incomplete character arcs. This film has no real identity, nothing that separates it from the herd, which is exactly why I’d recommend it to fans of the genre. If you happen to enjoy mobster movies, Sanctuary provides pretty much everything you’d expect from its category. Thing is, there was a spark of potential here. At first, the film wanted to take risks with its material but Sanctuary ends up playing it safe.
Sanctuary is brilliant. We see both a corrupt political system and a dangerous underground, neither of which want some young punks rising to the top. However, the two protagonists are doing just that.
This OVA doesn't really give many details on the background of the story, and it certainly doesn't end it, so I assume this covers something in the middle of the story... I'll definitely be wanting to read the manga to find out more.
If you enjoy when one character pulls a fast one over on the other like in Death Note or Code Geass, you'll probably like this. The main character, Hojo, appears
to be a genius. He's got a good position in the yakuza, but he has a great ambition that he works towards - apparently the whole "creating a sanctuary" thing, though this OVA doesn't really touch on that much. I often found myself impressed and just laughing a bit at how awesome it was when Hojo's plans took effect. He's an extremely charming and likeable character.
The animation was smooth enough to be better than today's standards. The characters actually moved around and there weren't any "freeze frame" attacks or whatever. Unlike most anime, the characters look pretty realistic, which, oddly, drew me in quite a lot.
The soundtrack contained some nice piano pieces and some funky stuff reminiscent of the '80s and '90s. It was quite fitting.
I really enjoy realistic situations in anime; the characters in this OVA don't do anything a person wouldn't do in real life. This really adds to the thrill when they do things that ARE out of the ordinary since we can really relate to it and see how impressive it is.
I have two complaints with Sanctuary.
1. There's a bunch of nudity and foreplay for no apparent reason. I could understand a little to show what these people are like, but it was pretty excessive to get that message across. I just thought it was pretty unnecessary and also felt a bit bad seeing it since I'm in a relationship.
2. There's only one OVA.
Other than that, I found this amazing and thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm kinda baffled why it's rated so low (6.61 at the time of writing this), but whatever.