It's a tough gig being a Takashi Miike fan. One must constantly battle the naysayers (of which there are plenty), and make an effort to somehow keep current with a director who makes movies faster than a normal person can watch them. And it's especially difficult to do from the US, given that most of his films don't come out here for at least a year or two after the fact. And with a handful of new movies every year, it's easy to overlook most of them for the one or two that are getting attention (positive or otherwise). For instance: last year (2007), what was the Miike movie that had everyone talking? Sukiyaki Western Django, of course! No surprise there. It made the rounds at Venice, TIFF, and some others... you'll find no shortage of reviews and discussions about it. I bought the Japanese DVD, and I can say firsthand that it's great. But what about the rest of Miike's 2007 output? What about Like a Dragon, and specifically for this post, what about Crows Zero?
Granted, Crows isn't the kind of movie that will garner any kind of international attention. It's basically a genre pic, though when you're dealing with Miike that means almost nothing. Sukiyaki Western is a genre pic. Gozu is a genre pic. If you've seen either of these movies, you know what a stretch it is to call the former "just" a western, or the latter a plain old yakuza film. So when I say that Crows is a high school gang movie, you can take that for what it's worth (not much). What it definitely is, however, is a commercial film, and one that's aimed straight at the youth of Japan, right down to the teen heart-throb casting. Not exactly the kind of flick to sweep the arthouse circuit, in other words.
The film is a prequel to the Crows manga series (hence: Crows Zero), which is HUGE in Japan. I have a feeling its genesis was exactly the opposite of the kind of twisted alchemy we all assume goes into the conception of a Miike picture. It was likely the brainchild of some marketing a-hole, and it wouldn't surprise me if the only reason they asked Miike to direct was that they knew he could finish it faster/cheaper than anyone else. But that's all speculation. And besides, some of Miike's best work came into being that way.
The setup is a little video game-ish, but it's perfect for a manga series (and by extension, a series of films). Genji, the hardass son of a hardass yakuza boss, transfers to Suzuran High, the toughest school in Japan. His plan? To form an army of followers, and to battle his way through the opposition in order to "conquer" the school. This supposedly impossible feat is the goal of every student in attendance, and the various classes form themselves into ad-hoc armies, with the strongest among them naturally rising to leadership positions.
When Genji arrives, the school is under the thumb of Tamao Serizawa, the one closest to uniting all of Suzuran under his rule. His second in command is Tokiyo, who (naturally) is Genji's childhood friend. Oh, the drama! Given the nature of the plot, character development takes a back seat to the near-endless string of savage gang rumbles, though Miike does manage to scatter little chunks of romance and friendship throughout. With each victory, Genji claws his way a little closer to the inevitable final battle against Serizawa... the battle that every single audience member just knows is going to be bad-fucking-ass.
And it is. Anyone who's seen Dead or Alive knows that Miike never disappoints when it comes to a final showdown.
Which brings up an interesting aspect of the film: it totally glamorizes brutal gang violence, and in the context of a school, no less! Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this is bad--I think it's hilarious. Of course there are the obligatory little clues here and there that fighting may not solve life's problems, but those are completely swept aside by the glamor and excitement that beating the shit out of your classmates promises to bring. I can't imagine a little kid watching this and not being inspired to kick the hell out of everyone he meets. Miike just makes it look so cool. I was half tempted to start a gang war among SFSU's grad programs, just to see who really runs this school. (Of course I know very well that we cinema studies kids are the top dogs... but it'd be nice to bust some heads and get the recognition we deserve, right!?)
Like any Miike film, Crows is strange, and a little uneven. The overall tone completely threw me off until I started thinking of it in more manga-like terms. The abrupt shifts from over-the-top slapstick to brutal violence to actual emotional intensity are a little strange, and those unfamiliar with manga (or anime) will find themselves scratching their heads during quite a few scenes. (For instance: when the most powerful fighter in the school hilariously crashes a minibike into the side of a van, complete with cartoon sound effects. See also: the human bowling pin scene.)
And yet, also like any Miike film, there are plenty of moments that shine through all the genre schlock, the kind of tidbits that fans like me live for... when Miike lets down his guard and squeezes a little brilliance in with the standard (though delightful) B-movie fare. There's an oddly-shifting ratio of brilliance in Miike films (Gozu being an example of 100% brilliance, I would say), but it's always there if you look for it. Despite his best efforts, Miike continues to create art... and Crows is no exception. I won't go into detail here, mostly because I'd hate to throw out too many spoilers before people in the US can even watch the damn thing.
Now that I think of it, that's one major problem with the movie: it's not out here yet. The Japanese DVD came out in April, but unfortunately it lacks English subtitles. So... shit! Sucks for you guys! At the current rate Crows Zero 2 will be out before the first one hits our humble shores. But if it follows the pattern for Miike sequels, it will likely be ten times the movie the original was, and will share almost no connections whatsoever. So no big loss!
I'd like to close with a quote from Tom Mes' review of Big Bang Love, which I think sums up the Miike experience perfectly, and is just as applicable to Crows as any of his other films:
"Yes, but is it any good? This is a Takashi Miike film. It will make you wonder, curse, marvel, tremble, scratch your head, grow bored, and awaken rudely. Celebrate it."