At this point Takashi Miike could shoot a movie about tree bark and make it work. He has made films in every conceivable genre — and some of no conceivable genre — and is not only comfortable but downright revolutionary in many of them. Crows Zero is Miike returning to territory he practically has a monopoly on: gangsters and delinquents. What I didn’t expect was how oddly charming the results would be. It’s a great example of how Japanese movies go for the heartstrings at the same time they go for the gut.
The plot’s straight out of a shonen manga — in fact, it is one, since it was adapted from the comic of the same name. It’s set in Suzuran High, one of those fantasy schools where the students are all ass-kicking punks, classes are never in, graffiti covers more surfaces than ads do at the Indy 500, and everyone’s fighting to be the king of the hill. In strides freshman Genji (Shun Oguri), determined to climb to the top of the heap as a way to score points with his gangster father. He sets his sights on the current #1, Serizawa (Takayuki Yamada), and while he has strength and heedlessness to spare, he’s only one guy. He needs to build an army, and he doesn’t know how to do that yet.
Newcomer Genji wants to climb to the top of Suzuran High,
but he'll need a better strategy than just to beat up everyone he meets.
He finds help in an unlikely form: Ken (Kyōsuke Yabe), a low-level gangster and a former Suzuran alumnus himself. He offers Genji what strategy and advice he has to spare. Helping out this kid is his way of raising up his own self-image, especially since he’s not a particularly competent gangster in the first place. When a rival mob pockets money he collected, we only find out about it when his boss (Kenichi Endo, a perennial Miike and gangster-movie fixture) corners him and slaps him like an unruly child. He feels more kinship with these kids than his own outfit, and at one point even takes a beating for them when a gang of punks threaten one of their would-be girlfriends. His real loyalties are tested when his boss orders him to kill that kid, partly as a way of striking at the boy’s father.
Miike seems to admits the complexity of the plot is beside the point, and even pokes quiet fun at it when he devotes a splashily-edited scene to explaining the various rivalries within the high school, while one character plots a relationship chart for the whole thing on the backside of a restaurant window. But he understands dramatic pacing as much as he does bang-bang editing and wild, stylish camera action; he knows when to dive nose-first into the thick of an action scene, and when to pull back and just sit and watch things happen.
Gangster Ken (red shirt) isn't very good at his job, but he's got an
affection for Genji that transcends loyalties.
No question that he loves going over the top, though. The characters all sustain so many injuries it practically becomes a running gag, and there’s a visual joke involving some of the more hapless students being used as live bowling pins that gets a big laugh even if it’s as big a departure from the story’s tone as it is the laws of physics. And yet the best scenes are the quiet ones, where the camera’s nailed down to let the actors (who are all good-to-excellent) come to the fore. I particularly liked the scenes between Genji and Ken, where one gets the impression that the younger man is actually the far more hard-boiled and uncompromising of the two, and it’s Ken who’s the unreconstructed idealist and moon-eyed romantic.
The movie also looks terrific — which of Miike’s films don’t, actually? — with shots bathed in brilliant sunset reds and garish backstreet neon colors. The high school itself is a crazy wreck , a masterwork of either set design or found locations; after this movie and Blue Spring, et al., one wonders if there’s a whole sub-industry of Japanese film production devoted to creating bombed-out high school environments.
Crows’s biggest flaw is something that has plagued a lot of movies lately, not just those from Japan: its length. There’s about fifteen more minutes than there need to be, most of it in the ridiculously drawn-out slow-motion gang-battle that stretches over the film’s climax. It’s something that smacks more of a studio demand than anything Miike would have put in by himself. At least everything that comes before gives us the momentum we need to sit through it without squirming too much. And Miike still has a great sense of exactly when to leave his characters — not when all is said and done, but right when the next door in front of them opens.