I first heard of Hiroyuki Tanaka, aka. "Sabu", thanks to someone calling him a genius and their favourite director. Understandably this caught my attention. However personally I'd never heard of him and an extremely small poll of Japanese people (i.e. asking my wife this morning) revealed that she hadn't either, although she had heard the name of the film he released last year. Sabu's Japanese, by the way. Of course all this proves nothing, but at least I feel a bit better now about not knowing who he was.
However after I'd done a little digging, the guy started to sound quite interesting. Sabu's an actor who started writing and directing his own films because of his frustration with filmmakers who settled for formula and mediocrity. He got sufficiently disillusioned that he took a four-year gap recently, but now he's back with The Crab Cannery Ship (2009) and Troubleman (2010). The latter's particularly interesting because it's a TV series and if Sabu had been disenchanted with movie-makers who weren't pushing themselves, I'd have expected murder if he went into Japanese TV. Anyway, Dangan Runner was his directorial debut. He's certainly displaying a distinctive style, but I'm also not surprised that I hadn't heard of him and I have no trouble at all in believing that he improved with his later films.
The obvious point of comparison is Run, Lola, Run, although it's crucial to point out that Dangan Runner came out two years earlier. Both are foreign-language films with lots of running, but you'll have probably heard of the German one. I remember seeing it in a regular British cinema. Both are set in a tough, streetwise world, leavened with a hint of whimsy, but Sabu's rather scary idea of whimsy includes yakuza massacres, macho idiots and passers-by getting shot through the head. His characters are like puppets being jerked around by coincidence, although it would be wrong not to mention that they're also complete losers. This film doesn't have a hero. It doesn't have multiple heroes. We're not being asked to identify with anyone in the cast at all, which given their appalling personalities is strangely what makes the film watchable. The camera merely follows its latest patsy around and stares at him, observing the inevitable idiocies and occasional killings (both accidental and otherwise) without passing judgement. It took me a while to get used to this, but the story's wild enough that I think Sabu gets away with it.
Our first pseudo-protagonist is Yasuda, played by Tomorowo Taguchi. This man is King Loser of all the losers. He rightly gets fired from his job in under a minute, while his idea of having a relationship with women involves calling out to someone on the street who dumped him long ago and is walking along at the time with her new boyfriend. The poor woman spends half her time trying to give Taguchi the brush-off and the other half trying to sharpen him up, as if she's his mother. Anyway, this man decides to rob a bank. Imagine how well that's going to go. No, worse than that. No, you're still thinking too high.
This is where Taguchi starts running.
What happens next though is a completely different story about a singer in a band who's in trouble with the yakuza because of his drug habit. This is disconcerting, until we realise that we're seeing the backstory of the guy who's chasing Taguchi and suddenly it becomes clear that he's in even more trouble than we thought he was.
Then the yakuza get involved. These are scary yakuza, by the way. They've got their own brand of pseudo-samurai philosophy and idiot machismo, but this only makes them more suicidally dangerous to go up against. They carry swords, by the way. Not just guns. We're only talking about wakizashi rather than actual katana, but even so. Both Taguchi and his pursuer Diamond Yukai had previously had dealings with this particular chap, Shin'ichi Tsutsumi, and after seeing his flashbacks we realise that we can now expect to be seeing wakizashi action.
The plot just keeps building. It's an unusual kind of escalation, in which the plot doesn't build through cause and effect, but instead through each new character who's randomly being sucked in having had a more spectacularly appalling day. By the end, the only place Sabu could have amped it up any further would have been to have Hitler running along. You could imagine this as the Japanese equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie film, in the way in which it's constructed around the colliding storylines of lots of homicidally dangerous criminals. All could be called black comedies, except that Sabu's direction feels so deadpan and disinterested that it's almost a shock when you find yourself laughing. The finale in particular is a laugh-out-loud set piece, but it hits you out of nowhere since the tone never makes this feel like a laugh-out-loud film.
The film's surprisingly strong thematically. There's some genuinely interesting material about masculine self-image and fantasies, most obviously in the toxic levels of macho bullshit and movie-cliche self-image. The runners go on a journey of self-discovery while they're pounding the pavement, in which we see how similar they are underneath in amusing incidents like the free drinks they snatch, or else disturbing ones like their sexual thoughts about a woman they all run past. I also think at least one of them genuinely goes insane.
The actors are good. Our street-running yakuza, Shin'ichi Tsutsumi, played the lead in Sabu's first five films until they both agreed to take a break just to stop people thinking they only worked with each other. Diamond Yukai is a rock singer and actor, but he's just right for this role and he's played, among other things, that obnoxious commercial director in Lost in Translation.
This isn't a classic, or even (probably) as good as its writer-director's other films. It also feels very indie, with that very un-Hollywood detachment towards its own protagonists, but it has some surprising laughs and memorable "are you guys INSANE?" moments. The finale is the most obvious crowd-pleaser, with hilarious trash talking in a room full of men on the point of killing each other. Don't expect anything even remotely resembling a moral judgement, but Sabu's undeniably painting a vivid picture of his macho cretins. I'm certainly up for seeing where he went next as a filmmaker, anyway. I hear good things about Monday
, Postman Blues
, Drive and Unlucky Monkey
Dangan means "bullet", by the way.