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Crows Zero (2007)
Director: Takashi Miike

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Based on the manga Crows by Hiroshi Takahashi, Takashi Miike's Crows Zero offers an intriguing blend of yakuza movie and shounen manga. The result is a film that, despite beautifully combining melodramatic bombast with adolescent silliness, feels very much like volume one of a 26-volume series thus posing the question: how self-contained does a film have to be in order for it to function as a film rather than an extended trailer?

The film is set in a rundown inner city high school whose teachers have long since given up attempting to instil discipline. Left entirely to its own devices the all-male student body spends its time forming gangs and fist-fighting in an effort to claim dominion over the notorious school and thereby launch successful careers in the Japanese underworld. While the school is populated with colourful fighters, the two most dangerous individuals are the diminutive "third year monster" Serizawa (Takayuki Yamada) and the troubled transfer student Ginji (Shun Oguri).

The influence of shounen manga is most evident in the film's structure. Like many shounen titles, the plot of Crows Zero is based on a sort of hero's journey that marches its protagonist through a series of escalating conflicts designed to equip him with the skills required for him to become the king of his chosen hill. Thankfully, unlike some adaptations of shounen manga, Crows Zero interprets this journey not as a series of physical confrontations but as a series of life lessons allowing the supremely tough Ginji to learn the social skills required to become a successful leader. Given that this process of gang-assembly dominates much of the film's run time, one could be forgiven for expecting Crows Zero to feel distinctly episodic. However, Miike's treatment of the various set pieces is so stylish, humane and humorous that one scarcely notices that the film essentially resembles a series of RPG-style quests. Equally important to minimising the episodic feel of the film are the subplots addressing character motivations. However, in order to unpack these motivations, the film is forced to change genres.

Though not particularly well known outside of its native country, one of the most influential and popular genres in Japanese film is the yakuza picture. The history of the yakuza picture breaks down into two distinct eras: the first - known as the 'chivalry' era - presented yakuza as modern-day samurai who live by a strict code of loyalty and honour. Mostly produced in the 1960s, these chivalric melodramas eventually gave way to the less romanticised vision of the Japanese underworld associated with Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honour And Humanity (1973).

Fukasaku's film (along with its four sequels) shifted the boundaries of the genre not only by painting yakuza as ruthless thugs but also by adopting a more realistic and pseudo-documentary approach to the subject matter. However, while Battles Without Honour And Humanity is now widely considered to be the Japanese equivalent of The Godfather, the earlier romanticised vision of the yakuza never completely disappeared from popular culture. This resulted in a bizarre genre identity crisis that prompted filmmakers to portray yakuza as ruthless and unprincipled psychopaths who are nonetheless intensely loyal and supremely honourable. In some cases, this identity crisis manifested itself as the intelligent acceptance of ambiguity exemplified by films such as Takeshi Kitano's fantastic Hana-bi (1997). In other cases, the genre's ambivalence resulted in characters that swung melodramatically between lamenting their lost honour and cackling as they tortured and brutalised their opponents. As might be expected from a film based upon a youth-oriented manga, Crows Zero is most definitely a member of the second category.

While the foreground of Crows Zero is dominated by the need to conquer the school, the subplots all revolve around the tensions between what the individual wants and what people expect of them. Thus, Ginji struggles with both the expectations of his father and the expectations of his followers while Serizawa tries to cope with the fact that his gang expects him to deal with Ginji despite the fact that he thinks the pair could probably be quite good friends. In true yakuza picture style, these tensions are explored in a highly stylised and melodramatic manner that owes more to opera than it does to gritty crime fiction. In fact, one subplot resolves itself by having someone bellowing their devotion into a rain-soaked sky while another subplot resolves itself through an epic all-day battle sequence.

As the film progresses, this movement between genres proves itself to be remarkably effective as the melodrama distracts from the episodic structure of the plot while the humour and violence prevent the film from getting bogged down in self-indulgent teenaged angst. However, while Crows Zero neatly sidesteps the problems associated with both of its parent genres, the film does possess its own set of problems.

The most glaring problem is that Crows Zero was quite clearly written and shot with a sequel in mind. As a result, the film is weighted down with secondary characters and subplots that are only introduced in order to set up an eventual sequel. In some cases, these elements are little more than bloat but in some cases they actively undercut the content of the film. For example, while the main plot of Crows Zero builds relentlessly towards a confrontation between Genji and Serizawa, a number of the film's subplots undercut this grand narrative arc by laying a basis for friendship that will allow Genji and Serizawa to fight side by side in a future film.

The tension between these two elements is not only palpable but really poorly managed as evidenced by an absolutely ludicrous scene where Genji gets emotional because Serizawa's right hand man is taken ill. Even more grating, the film ends by introducing a character that promptly reboots the entire school so that the characters will have something to fight over in the sequel. In fact, Miike did return to the series to direct Crows Zero 2 and, according to the Wikipedia page, the series shows no sign of ending there.

Sadly, even when Miike's attentions are focused on the film at hand, the results are depressingly uneven as poor character design and lighting result in murky fight scenes comprising people in black uniforms flailing at each other against even darker backgrounds. Even more depressing is the fact that most of Crows Zero's fight scenes are poorly choreographed and dull to sit through. As I watched Ginji and Serizawa pummel each other into the dust for what felt like an hour, I couldn't help but think of the South Korean film Volcano High (2001) that filtered an almost identical plot through the kinetic stylistic lens of arcade action games such as Street Fighter and Devil May Cry. Volcano High was an immensely dumb film but, unlike Crows Zero, its fight scenes were not boring.

While Crows Zero has more than enough about it to convince that an entire series of films would be fantastic to behold, watching the first film on its own was a bit like watching the first episode of a TV series. Yes, some of the characters are interesting... Yes, the setting is engaging... Yes, the blend of humour, melodrama, and violence, are surprisingly effective... All of these things are undeniably true but they simply do not add up to a decent self-contained film. What they actually add up to is a huge amount of potential that may or may not translate into a great series of films. However, until that series of films is complete, Crows Zero feels far too concerned with the future of the franchise to satisfy as a film in its own right.

Crows Zero

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