Watching Takashi Miike's films is like watching some sort of mad genius at work, occasionally leaning toward mad and occasionally leaning toward genius. What seems purely random is his ability, every now and again, to transcend his straight-to-video cult reputation. It's easy to assume that Miike is purely a shoot-from-the-hip director—master of his own reality—resulting in three to five films a year that range from awful to masterful. His refusal to adhere to genre and his policy of never refusing a project is underlined in every film he makes. Regardless, sometimes the mix is just right; I might even go so far to say that occasionally he reaches some sort of perfection in his stylistic mash-ups with the best example being Gozu, combining comedy, drama and melodrama with twinges of Lynchian surreality and yakuza brutality and visceral horror. Miike's recent Crows Zero comes so close to finding a yankii ne plus ultra, it is easy for me to forgive it for its minor shortcomings.
Crows Zero is a loose adaptation of the manga Crows which takes place in the rough and tumble world of Suzuran All-boys High School. The school earns the nicknamed 'The Crows School' from the delinquents and hang-abouts that fit the image. Classes hardly fit into this anarchistic microcosm where factions fight for king of the hill. Enter Genji, a transfer student who has but one mission: to rule Suzuran. Genji seems more than up to the task, but he realizes very quickly that he is going to have to do more than just bang a few heads together to earn the respect and the momentum needed to take down Suzuran's reigning gang lead by the more-than-meets-the-eye Tamao. Genji enlists a two-bit yakuza and Suzuran alumni, Ken, to help him out on some of the more diplomatic nuances of becoming number one.
Although there is enough hand-to-hand man-to-man down-in-the-dirt fighting to keep any delinquent wannabe happier than a clam, Crows Zero is much more than testosterone stare-downs and tough-guy swaggers. The opening sequence is a rare mixture of comedy and action as Tamao displays his incompentence in driving a moped. He nonetheless speeds through the streets dodging people and cops alike. Due to his aggressive mis-handling of the tiny moped—including accepting a challenge to 'chicken' with a squad car—the bike proceeds to fall apart, replete with "boing" sound effects. Tamao's hilariously silly ride on the mini bike is bookended by a full-on freshman class fight in the gymnasium and Genji wiping up the local yakuza, with minimal throws of the fists. It's an intro of no restraint that blindsides you with it's sheer unexpectedness.
Despite the violence, the film is much more tender than you might expect. Self-destruction aside, the heart and soul of the film are boys struggling to become men. Genji is a boy in the shadow of his yakuza father (a minor role played by the excellent Goro Kishitani.) His father has promised him the family business if he can truly rule Suzuran High, a set-up that is no doubt more of a learning experience than a real possibility for Genji. Likewise, the characters are not one-dimensional brutes without feelings. Genji's insecurities are in full view as his friendship with Ken develops with genuine trust and respect. Conversely, Ken's weakness as a yakuza gives over to admiration of Genji's youthful pursuits of respect and honor. Miike refuses to trivialize the male bonding as anything other than part of a right of passage to adulthood. He even goes so far as to create a triangle involving Tokio, Tamao's rock solid number two man, who used to be good friends with Genji in junior high. In Crows Zero, love exists outside of gender in loyalty and who you are willing to cut off an ear for.
The fights are a satisfying combination of Shaolin Soccer and Nowhere To Hide, mad with CGI and effects, and the raw mano a mano of Blue Spring and Spirit of Jeet Kune Do (keeping in mind that none of those films are 'fight films' but films that have fighting.) The violence never veers over-the-top, a la Ichi, but stays within the lines of acceptable stylized action. If Crows Zero is going to be blamed for going over-the-top, it will be for the melodrama of the showdown fight. With rain pouring down on our young ruffian heroes, Miike goes into unforgivable theatrical overdrive intercutting Tokio's brain operation with Ruka's love ballad with the ultimate tough-guy slow-mo fist flying. It would have made a great music video, but it is completely excessive and actually pulled be out of the adrenaline pumping action.
Crows Zero doesn't necessarily mark new territory for Miike. Substitute the yakuza for the yankii, and there are a good dozen films that explore similar themes. The success of Crows in Japan probably has less to do with Miike himself, than the familiarity of the manga and the popularity of the young cast. Specifically, Shun Oguri, Takayuki Yamada, and Sousuke Takaoka, all young actors greeted by young girl's squeals. Their characters may be ready to bust some heads, but they will not do so with out looking really good. When Crows opened at number one in Japan last year, it was reported to many people's surprise that the audience ratio was 43 males to 57 females. For a film that is clearly directed at the young men, it is no wonder it did so well.
Crows Zero was Miike's biggest hit so far in Japan (Crows Zero II is now in post-production), but don't expect that to translate into anything on these shores. Miike had his breakout film nine years ago with Audition, and interest in his films seems to have plateaued. His fans, your truly included, will no doubt be loyal to a fault, taking in the good with the bad, but being exhilarated every step of the way.
Crows Zero is currently available as a Region 3 DVD from Taiwan, and is slated to get a US release via Media Blasters.