Fueled: The Man They Call Pirate is a rousing, and slightly nationalistic, period drama directed by tentpole director Yamazaki Takashi (Returner, Space Battleship Yamamoto, Parasyte). Filmed from a screenplay he adapted from the novel A Man Called Pirate by Hyakuta Naoki the story in the novel is loosely based on the story of Sazo Idemitsu, the founder of Idemitsu Kosan, a Japanese oil company.
Fueled reunites Yamazaki with his Eternal Zero star Okada Junichi. Eternal Zero was another adaptation of another novel by Hyakuta. We are sensing a trend here. Okada plays Kunioka Tetsuzo, the titular pirate and owner of the small oil company. As Japan rebuilds itself after the Second World War he believes that Japan’s future will be built on oil, not coal. So begins his fight with the established and bigger oil companies all along the way.
When he temporarily gets shut out of the oil business he finds other ways to keep his company solvent. When the larger oil companies try to bury him in bureaucracy he rallies his employees returning from the war and overcomes those obstacles. The story in Fueled culminates with Kunioka’s biggest gamble, sending his lone oil tanker to get oil from a shunned oil supplier, blockaded by Allied forces after World War Two.
The story bounces back and forth, from the early 1900s to the years just after losing the war in the Pacific, from when Kunioka fights to establish the Kunioka Trading Company and set it up as a legitimate contender to keeping it relevant during tough times. From those humble beginnings the story focuses mainly on the post-war era as Japan rebuilds after the war. As his employees return from the war he struggles to keep his company open for business. There are strong messages about loyalty, tenacity and downright stubbornness. The story in Fueled is a mix of themes that at times seem blatantly Japanese (loyalty and fidelity) to an outsider like myself (fueled by our consumption of Japanese mass media), and other themes we feel would go against the grain of what we ignorantly think of as Japanese; non conformist, rebellion and tenacity.
However, one storyline that Yamazaki really misses out on is the marriage between Kunioka and his first wife, Yuki. Present in his life during the building of his company before the Second World War she leaves him and returns to her home, for reasons best kept to discover during the viewing of the film. Later in the film, in the epilogue, there is one last grasp for our heart strings, when we see Kunioka in his twilight years and he is reminded of Yuki. With very little time devoted to their relationship in the film it is an odd attempt to give them a tug when we have never really made that emotional connection with the couple during those scant moments in the film. Call it a missed opportunity. Call it too much focus on the story of making Japan great again. Bringing it back around at the end of film feels more like a tactic.
The real heart of the film is the relationships between Kurioka and his staff throughout the years. The co-workers and employees who stood by Kunioka’s side as he fought to keep his company running from the ground up and after the war in the Pacific. Bringing any of them back in the epilogue would have had more emotional punch.
There is no doubt that as the story goes Yamazaki does stir the emotional pot and will get reactions from the audience, none of them being negative. From the start of the story, the early years of Kunioka’s company, the story is light and humorous as Yamazaki and Okada plant the strong willed and minded company leader against the establishment. As Kunioka, Okada expertly handles the emotional ups and downs the character experiences throughout his life. One of Japan’s biggest leading actors he is convincing in his portrayal of youthful exuberance and elderly statesmanship. Even in that final epilogue he gives it everything he’s got. A tip of the hat to the makeup team on Fueled as Okada was nearly unrecognizable as the elder Kurioka from the early minutes of the film before it jumped back to the beginning of Kunioka’s story.
The slight nationalism comes in whenever a foreign company tries to take away business from Kunioka. It is not as overt as I may make it out to be but it is there, and as the story goes on, as Japan starts to rebuild after the war, after Fueled has already reeled us in and we are invested in Kunioka and his fight it pops up one more time.
In the final act, with his big move to secure a source of oil Kunioka sends his lone oil tanker to get oil from a country cut off by the Allies. When we see his tenacity and stubbornness and we can politely cheer on the company leader as he fights to keep his company going. But there is a statement made during an altercation that Japan is awesome, and more importantly it is a free country so it can do business with whomever it chooses to. One confrontation and an international crisis averted we can go back to celebrating the man who fought hard to keep his company going during some lean years in Japan’s history.
Above all of this, Fueled: The Man They Call Pirate is still an enjoyable period drama anchored by the strong performance of its leading man Okada Junichi. Understanding where its director and writer Yamazaki Takashi wants to focus the emotional attachments, the loyalty between a business owner and his employees, there is much to root for as these upstarts upset the apple cart and fight for what is theirs. It is not that often that we are given a film that explores the struggles of the people of Japan after the Second World War, shows us how some had to literally scrape together a living to rise from the ashes afterwards.