Gakuryu IshiiJapaneseTatsuo YamadaNenji Kobayashi
Crazy Thunder Road
Medium: film
Year: 1980
Writer/director: Gakuryu Ishii [Sogo Ishii]
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Tatsuo Yamada, Masamitsu Ohike, Koji Nanjo, Nenji Kobayashi
Format: 95 minutes
Website category: Japanese
Review date: 27 March 2012
I didn't like it at all, which surprised me. Sogo Ishii is a big deal in Asian cinema and this is one of his most famous punk movies, made with friends of his while he was still at university but picked up and released theatrically by Toho. This raised controversy because of its violence. It's about biker gangs and it starred friends of his from biker gangs.
The problem with the film, for me, is that I kept waiting for someone to do something. Bikers showed up. They're quite scary and I'd certainly never seen anyone like them when I lived in Japan. This might sound promising, but what they do is sit around and talk trash. After a while I started wondering if this was a documentary, due to the aggressively rough aesthetic and the fact that nothing seemed to be happening.
However despite appearances, there is a plot. The leader of these bikers has found himself a cute barmaid and has become less interested in being a rebellious ultra-violent menace to society, which distresses his chums. Their gang faction splits off into an even meaner gang. Bikers ride bikes, talk a lot and occasionally fight. In other words, they're still doing nothing worth waking up an audience for. About halfway through there's a bigger fight, which is more violent than the earlier bits and pieces and has bikers charging with machetes at a much bigger bunch of bikers. The Japanese equivalent of neo-Nazis make their way into the plot, which means an older dude who encourages them to go to war and likes Japanese flags, including the old one with red sunbeams that was the war flag of the Imperial Japanese Army. At the end there's an even bigger fight. I also forgot to mention the chainsaw. The end.
It's an experience, at least. It's directed full-bore, with the maximum of raw energy and the minimum of finesse. There's also a scene in which the barmaid gets topless. The problem is that it feels undirected... it's going to angry extremes of punk, but it then doesn't know what to do once it's got there except to punk some more. The result is that I got bored.
...and that's it, really. Is there anything else to say? It's at once pointless and a massively impressive calling card from a blazing young talent. Some of its stars would even have proper acting careers, with Tatsuo Yamada for instance using this as the springboard to a very respectable CV before his death in 2009 at only 53. Nenji Kobayashi doesn't really count as he'd already been an actor beforehand, though.
It hasn't put me off Sogo Ishii, though. I'm not giving up yet on his punk films, e.g. Burst City, which starred a semi-mutant biker gang and foreshadowed the 1980s underground Japanese Cyberpunk movement. However in addition to those, in other films he's gone in a completely different direction. The Crazy Family is an blazing attack on Japanese society and culture, taking the stereotype of the nuclear family and, well, nuking it. It's an assault on the brain, but in a good way. Gojoe: Spirit War Chronicle bored me, but it's yet another new direction for him, a big-budget samurai historical about the legends of Saito Musashibo Benkei and Yoshitsune. He's gone philosophical and even mystical with the likes of August in the Water (a girl gets supernatural powers and finds out the meaning of her life) and Labyrinth of Dreams (a bus conductor thinks her driver might be a serial killer). There's even a short Sogo Ishii superhero movie, Electric Dragon 80,000 V.
However none of that helped me with Crazy Thunder Road. Admittedly, to its credit, it's not just screaming at the audience. It's socially aware, in its way, and it's not just sticking its anti-heroes in an anarchist vacuum. Look at where the characters end up, for example. He absolutely refuses to make them look cool. The neo-imperialists, the barmaid and even a drug-dealing child are all caught in the bikers' orbit and Ishii is both deeply pessimistic and aware of the ugliness of what he's portraying. He's just not letting that stop him for even a millisecond.