DVD Review: Takashi Miike’s ‘Crows Zero’ (2008)
Review by Keri O’Shea
“There is no clean fight in a war.”
Like many cult movie enthusiasts, I declare myself to be a huge fan of the films of Takashi Miike but in truth, I have only seen a tiny fraction of his work. To be fair, it’s hard to keep up with his output – the guy’s one of the hardest-working filmmakers in existence, often turning around two or three films per year, and many of his films don’t officially make it to these shores at all. So, I wasn’t too surprised that I hadn’t picked up on Crows Zero when it was completed around four years ago – it has already spawned a sequel – and I was quite content to sit down to my screener with no prior knowledge of what to expect. The result? I feel as though I’ve seen something pretty special.
Based on the manga of Hiroshi Takahashi, creator of ‘Ring’ (and where would the Japanese film industry be without the creative universe of manga?) Crows Zero is set at the Suzuran Boys’ School, a violent, hierarchical hellhole where “a man’s worth is proven by his fists”. And yet, new boy Genji Takiya has transferred to Suzuran through choice. The links between Suzuran and a promising future as a yakuza (again, where would Japanese cinema be…?) are manifold; in Genji’s case, his yakuza papa has advised him that, if Genji can take over Suzuran, he can in turn take over his organisation. This is a rite of passage for Genji in a finishing school for crooks, it seems, so he begins to punch and kick his way through all the boys who stand between him and being ‘king of the beasts’, helped by a Suzuran alumni (and associate of a rival syndicate), Ken Katagiri, who has an axe to grind about never making it to the top himself. What follows is an almost military operation, with meticulous planning, strategy, allegiances and counter-allegiances – not to mention a hell of a lot of slugging it out! This is much closer in spirit to Fight Club than the generic martial arts style violence you might once have associated with cinema from this neck of the woods, and it is just as underpinned with some similar themes…
Takashi is an adept filmmaker, and so comfortable is he with his job that he can disrupt the pace and tension for break-out interludes – such as the arrival of a bunch of yakuza on Suzuran campus, who begin hassling and intimidating the boys, before pausing to decide on who is going on a run to the shops. This, but of course, is of no detriment to the film whatsoever, whereas in some hands that would feel too self-aware, too uncomfortable. The impression I got was of a director with the utmost confidence in his abilities. The shifts from ultraviolence to humour (which is often physical) to, and I mean this sincerely – pathos, are cool and organic. Whilst Crows Zero is a much more linear and accessible film than the most outlandish of Takashi Miike’s movies, by the end of the film we can see that it still manages to juggle three separate strands of story occurring in different places, bringing them together satisfactorily and neatly.
There is some innovative editing here too. When Takashi ‘chops’ a scene into a sequence of short, rapid edits – for instance, as someone is knocked backwards by a hefty punch – it really gives the impression of how the scene might appear drawn on a comic-book page. Add to this the use of colour – often stripping the on-screen action down to black, white and red – then you have a really effective marriage of comic and movie, which doesn’t rely on something as extensive as the effects in Sin City to create a crossover, but which looks just as interesting and stylish. This is aided and abetted by this incontrovertible fact: Takashi is an accomplished action director. The fights are meaty, and the quality of synchronicity achieved, even in scenes with around forty participants, was a pleasure to behold.
However, so far I have ignored a key aspect here, and that is the story itself. Genji starts out as a character with almost nothing to say for himself, only a driving ambition to prove his worth in the School of Crows – but there is a system at play in Suzuran, and he needs help to understand it, which brings him to the attention of Ken, a thirty-something who knows what the consequences of harbouring unfulfilled ambitions can do to a person. Theirs is an unlikely friendship, but you know what? It’s believable and warm, not to mention very funny. As well as all the necessary ass-kicking Genji has to do to get closer to his goal, Crows Zero is also a look at the value of companionship. Genji isn’t the lone wolf he first sets himself out to be. Both characters grow exponentially during the course of the film’s two hours, but perhaps it is Ken’s development which is most striking. He begins his on-screen life as a scraping, clownish figure – abhorred by his yakuza boss, taken less-than-seriously by almost everyone else, he’s a man who is living with being second best. By the end of this film, he is something quite different. A strong supporting cast adds credibility to all of this: the violence might be superhuman, but the interrelationships have enough substance to make the character arcs seem real.
As a high-action, darkly comic piece of cinema, Crows Zero is note perfect. It’s loud, frenetic and a lot of fun. It’s just that bit more special, though, because the bonds which the characters form add real backbone to an already visually-spectacular movie. Perhaps there’s an even more serious point behind all this, too, albeit one which Takashi doesn’t need to hammer home at every given opportunity to render it effective: this point is that life is short, and you need to get out there and go for it while you can. This film comes highly recommended.
Crows Zero will be released on DVD by MVM on 9th April 2012.