Dangan Runner (弾丸ランナー, SABU, 1996)

Dangan Runner posterIt’s not difficult to see what might send three young men running like stray bullets from a random gun in the Japan of the mid-90s, but each of the various protagonists of SABU’s debut feature Dangan Runner (弾丸ランナー, AKA Non-Stop) is reaching for a different target. Like much of the director’s later work, Dangan Runner pivots on random circumstance which somehow conspires to bring our three runners together as if bound by cosmic thread while they too are chased by an oncoming storm in the form of vengeful yakuza and the bumbling cops hot on their trail.

Kickstarting the whole affair, lowly restaurant worker Yasuda (Tomorowo Taguchi), fed up with the petty humiliations of his life, decides to rob a bank. He has everything planned, even rehearsed and choreographed down to the second, but when the time comes he makes a mistake. Having left his mask at home, he decides to buy one from a local combini but panics and accidentally shoplifts instead, attracting the attentions of bullet two – Aizawa (Diamond Yukai), who is wounded in the arm by Yasuda’s nervous shot when his gun accidentally goes off. A drug addict and former rockstar, Aizawa, intent on revenge for the disrespect he’s just been paid, retrieves the gun dropped by Yasuda and chases him through the streets of Tokyo. Aizawa in turn continues the chain reaction when he bumps into a yakuza, Takeda (Shinichi Tsutsumi), who is “triggered” by a deep seated trauma into chasing off after Aizawa, knife in hand. Meanwhile, a rival yakuza clan is also after Takeda because of gangland politics while they too are being monitored by the police who have gotten wind of a gang war in the offing.

Though SABU’s film is not in the least political, it is like much of his work a mild satire even if its sympathy lies firmly with its three central heroes each desperately trying and failing to outrun themselves. Yasuda, a small man with a slight frame, is the lowest of the low. He has a terrible job as a kitchen assistant in a small restaurant where he is constantly bullied by the head chef and belittled by the other kitchen staff who are all much taller and stronger than he is. It’s not difficult to see why he might bristle so much when one calls him “good for nothing”, yet he’s not the type to offer more than an angry stare in return. To make matters worse, he runs into an old girlfriend who appears to have moved on and up. Walking arm in arm with a wealthy salaryman, she has apparently jettisoned the “common” name of “Midori” for the relatively more sophisticated one of “Yasuko”, presumably hoping to hook someone who is indeed the polar opposite of a “loser” like Yasuda.

Aizawa also has his share of woman troubles though his are of an opposing dimension. A failed musician with a drug problem, Aizawa alienated his loving girlfriend while hoping his addiction would save him from his unattainable dreams. Of course, it’s an entirely different “shot in the arm” that starts him running, but like Yasuda in the end all he can think of is the girl and how he did everything wrong. Takeda, by contrast, is a yakuza through and through. His regrets are bound up with homosocial bonding and male loyalty, mourning the death of the trusted superior he failed to save in dodging the blows of a random assassin. Yet as his superior tells him, all living beings run towards the same thing. A yakuza cannot control his death but he can control his life and the effect he has on others. He urges Takeda to run and find life in the process, but perhaps Takeda’s destination is the run itself rather than where it will eventually take him.

Indeed, Yasuda, accidentally landing up in the middle of the yakuza gang war, affirms that he never felt so alive as when he was running for his life. All three men, running fast from failure, finally achieve the freedom they’d dreamed of through the intense exertion of their flight which later literally becomes orgasmic as all three fantasise about a pretty woman seen on the side of the road. Like bullets fired from a gun powered by social impossibility, each is destined to explode on reaching its chosen target. Like many of SABU’s later protagonists, these are men brought low by life and circumstance, driven slowly mad by a conspiracy of cosmic coincidence, mere playthings of fate without power or agency. Angry young men are a powder keg waiting to ignite, but in SABU’s whimsically surreal universe they usually sort things out amongst themselves. For the Dangan Runners, they only need to look in the mirror to figure out where it is they need to go.


Dangan Runner is available on dual format DVD & blu-ray from Third Window Films. On disc extras include a video essay on the history of V Cinema from film scholar Tom Mes, and an expansive audio commentary by Jasper Sharp providing detailed background on SABU’s career and the Japanese cinema landscape of the mid-90s.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Night Train to the Stars (わが心の銀河鉄道 宮沢賢治物語, Kazuki Omori, 1996)

night train to the stars posterKenji Miyazawa is one of the giants of modern Japanese literature. Studied in schools and beloved by children everywhere, Night on the Galactic Railroad has become a cultural touchstone but Miyazawa died from pneumonia at 37 years of age long before his work was widely appreciated. Night Train to the Stars (わが心の銀河鉄道 宮沢賢治物語, Waga Kokoro no Ginga Tetsudo: Miyazawa Kenji no Monogatari), commissioned to mark the centenary of Miyazawa’s birth, attempts to tell his story, set as it is against the backdrop of rising militarism.

An aimless if idealistic young man, Miyazawa (Naoto Ogata) is at once fiercely religious and interested in mildly left-wing, agrarian politics. Together with a close friend, Kanai, he dreams of building a village utopia in which a community of farmers works the land enjoying peace and prosperity free of the oppression of landlords. The eldest son of a money lender, Miyazawa does not approve of his father’s profession and attempts to show him up by interfering in his business but only succeeds in showing his own naivety and though he has an especially close relationship with his older sister Toshi (Maki Mizuno), Miyazawa longs for pastures new but never manages to stick at anything for very long. After failing to join a religious sect in Tokyo, he returns home to start an agrarian school which will teach ordinary famers’ sons the joys of the arts.

Miyazawa had seemingly always been a strange, ethereal presence – a drunken guest at his family home mocks the way he used to wander around town robotically banging his toy drum as a child, and it’s clear he doesn’t fit within any of the environments he attempts to carve out for himself save the solitary cabin where he later begins his personal agrarian experiment. As the eldest son of the family it would be expected that Miyazawa take over the family business but there just isn’t any way he could. Second son Seiroku (Ryuji Harada) later adopts the familial responsibilities, even if remaining committed to his brother’s legacy by collating and publishing his work following Miyazawa’s death.

Miyazawa’s strangeness extends to his diet – he’s a strict vegetarian thanks to his attachment to Nichizen Buddhism. Intense religiosity remains a central part of Miyazawa’s life but it’s often one that’s hard to integrate with his other relationships. Not content with leading by example, Miyazawa is continually trying to convert his reluctant friends and family to his own beliefs, refusing to take their polite refusals seriously. Though his father simply ignores Miyazawa’s pleas and accepts them as a part of his strangeness, other friends are not so tolerant. One even eventually decides to sever the friendship entirely, giving the young Miyazawa a painful station platform lecture on the true nature of friendship. Berating him for the fact his letters are essentially all about himself and his religious claptrap, his friend reminds him that true friendship is accepting someone for what they are, implying that he’s not a trophy to be won for the cause of Nichizen Buddhism and has his own beliefs and causes which are just as valid as Miyazawa’s.

Yet even if sometimes misguided, Miyazawa’s intensions are altruistic. His is a love of the world, of dreams, and nature and people too though something in him has never quite felt at home in conventional society. Miyazawa’s writing is more an artistic pursuit than an attempt at a literary occupation – his first published volume sold so badly he felt guilty enough to get himself in debt buying all his own books so that the publishing company wouldn’t be out of pocket after supporting him. The son of wealthy family, Miyazawa could perhaps afford to indulge his eccentric ideas but the same is not true for all as he finds out when visiting the home of a pupil who is considering giving up his studies because of an alcoholic parent. Miyazawa offers to pay his tuition for him, but the boy turns him down, studying is a frivolous affectation that he can no longer afford.

Though he talks of romance, Miyazawa prefers the one of the mind to the one of the heart. A young woman falls in love with his writings and, she thinks, with him though Miyazawa explains that her feelings are too big for him to process – just as one cannot eat all the clouds in the sky, he cannot accept the weight of her emotion. Knowing that his health is failing, Miyazawa chooses a fantasy, idealised love over a physical one he fears he will abandon, cleaving to the beauty of the landscape rather than those who people it.

On his deathbed Miyazawa asks his family to throw his notebooks away – he only kept them to try and figure things out but he feels as if he knows all he needs to know by now. Miyazawa’s constant search, as it was for the characters of Night on the Galactic Railroad, was for “true happiness” – perhaps he found it, perhaps not, but thankfully his work lived on thanks to his brother who later took up his interest in agricultural reforms. A typical prestige picture of the time, Night Train to the Stars is a straightforward biopic but one which also bears out Miyazawa’s dreamlike world view with all of its strangeness and wonder.


 

A Weapon in My Heart (我が胸に凶器あり, AKA A Cop, A Bitch, and a Killer, Shinji Aoyama, 1996)

a-weapon-in-my-heartShinji Aoyama would produce one of the most important Japanese films of the early 21st century in Eureka, but like many directors of his generation he came of age during the V-cinema boom. This relatively short lived medium was the new no holds barred arena for fledgling filmmakers who could adhere to a strict budget and shooting schedule but were also aching to spread their wings. After a short period as an AD with fellow V-cinema director now turned international auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Aoyama directed his first straight to video effort – the sex comedy It’s Not in the Textbook!. Released just after his theatrical debut, Helpless, A Weapon in My Heart (我が胸に凶器あり, Waga Mune ni Kyoki Ari, AKA A Cop, A Bitch, and a Killer) is a more typically genre orientated effort with its cops, robbers, and femme fatale setup but like the best examples of the V-cinema trend it bears the signature of its ambitious director making the most of its humble origins.

Call girl Alice has ripped off her gangster bosses for a large amount of heroine only her accomplice has got cold feet and called a relative in the police force. The kid gets shot as officers Goro and his partner Yoshioka wade in all guns blazing but Alice calmly allows herself to be taken into custody. Yoshioka is a strangely cheerful chap who informs Alice that he has a game running where he gives suspects odds to bet on their likelihood of escape. Hers are brilliant because there is no way she is getting away. However, the trio are ambushed by crazy gangster Matsumura and his gang forcing Goro and Alice onto the run. In addition to avoiding Matsumura and his dastardly schemes, Goro and Alice are also being stalked by a mysterious hitman, Hoshi, who claims to be “watching from up above” and has his own motives for his bizarrely heroic hunting style.

This being a V-cinema effort, the production values are low, shot in widescreen but on the kind of cheap video cameras common to the V-cinema movement. Nevertheless, Aoyama makes the most of what he has to create a stylish genre throwback which recalls the Nikkatsu action films of years gone by only a little less madcap even if leaning towards the surreal. Told in a non-linear fashion, exposition is delivered largely through flashbacks but each of these is innovatively offered such as in a touching scene in which Goro remembers a conversation with Yoshioka in which only the lighting darkens to let us know that the happy memory has ended and the melancholy present has resumed. Similar techniques mark Alice’s frequent flashbacks to her traumatic crime, though in line with their much more pressing nature Alice’s memories are given harsher, more abrupt entrances and exits, lacerating the screen as they do her mind.

The genre elements may be familiar enough but Aoyama ensures each of the major players is fully drawn despite the necessarily tight running time. Good cop Goro is arguably the least explored but it’s antagonist Hoshi who leaves the biggest mark. A joke that’s somewhat lost in translation runs on the fact that “Hoshi” means star which lends an oddly comic dimension to his frequently uttered catch phrase in which he promises to be watching “from up above”. Having once abandoned the killing game, Hoshi has found himself forced back into the life in order to earn the money to pay for an operation to restore the sight of his blinded son – something he feels karmically responsible for. Frequently letting our heroes go out of a debt of honour, Hoshi nevertheless has his mission to complete, no matter how much it might offend him to do so.

Our policemen also seem to operate from a mysterious antique shop where they keep the records for their escape based betting games. Add in weird dirt bike riders, mysterious statues, and strange phone calls not to mention a horror movie inspired sequence where our two heroes are trapped in a shed while the enemy looms large in a thunderstorm outside and there are plenty of interesting quirks to be going on with. Deaths are dramatic, slow motion falls and set pieces become remarkably elaborate but there’s also a sort of childish innocence as a fearsome killer tries and fails to unwrap one of his beloved boiled sweets even as he dies. Very much part of the fast and loose V-cinema universe, A Weapon in My Heart is also pure Aoyama, filled with strange details and surrealist touches but ultimately imbued with his own strange brand of humanity.


 

Kids Return (キッズ リタ-ン, Takeshi Kitano, 1996)

kids-returnReview of Kitano’s Kids Return first published by UK Anime Network.


Kids Return (キッズ リタ-ン), completed in 1996, marks Kitano’s return to filmmaking after the serious motorcycle accident which almost claimed his life and has continued to have long term effects both personally and in terms of his career. Once again he remains firmly behind the camera but displays a more contemplative, nostalgic approach than had been present in much of his previous work. The tale of two delinquent slackers in small town Japan, Kids Return has an obvious autobiographical quality and even if the future looks bleak, Shinji (Masanobu Ando) and Masaru (Ken Kaneko), like Kitano himself, are not beaten yet.

Beginning with a sequence of the older Shinji delivering rice and sharing a melancholy reunion with school friend Masaru, Kitano then hops back to their carefree school days of slacking off and intermittently trolling the entire institution. Masaru is the leader of the pair, loud mouthed and violent, always trying to big himself up, while Shinji is the classic sidekick – always following dutifully behind and lost without his friend’s leadership. Their paths diverge when Masaru decides to join a boxing club after someone he’d bullied and extorted money from hires a boxer to get revenge on him. Masaru is hopeless in the ring and lacks the dedication it would take to become a serious althete but Shinji shows promise, eventually knocking Masaru out after being forced into a humiliating duel. Masaru ends up joining the yakuza gang which hangs out in his favourite ramen joint and quickly rises through the ranks. Though both boys look to be going somewhere along their chosen paths, they each squander their given advantages through a series of poor decisions and eventually find themselves right back where they started.

Shinji and Masaru are typical of many young men of their generation and social class. They “go to school” but rarely attend lessons and are often to be found riding their bike around the playground or pranking the other students such as in a particularly elaborate plot where they dangle a stick figure of a teacher down from the roof to the classroom window below, joyfully erecting the “penis” they’ve given it by attaching a torch to the middle section complete with wire brush hair and cotton balls. Such tricks may seem like innocent, juvenile behaviour but a more serious side emerges when an obnoxious teacher’s car is set on fire.

The teachers at the school have already written the boys off as not worth saving. Always referring to them as “the morons”, the school seems reluctant to actually expel the pair and has come to view them as amusing inconveniences more than anything else. None of the teachers is interested in reaching out to Shinji or Masaru and, in fact, they appear to be a cynical bunch with no real interest in the children in their care. At the end of the school year the teachers begin discussing their progress and reveal that only a handful of students will be going to university (and only one to a public, rather than private institution) and that those who are have largely achieved it through their own steam. The education system has nothing to offer these students who have already been judged unworthy of advancement and is in no way interested in providing any kind of pastoral care or social support.

Shinji and Masaru are expected to find their own paths, but the film posits that this idea of total, individual freedom of the modern era is at the root of their problems because it leaves them with too many choices and no clear direction. Failed by education, the pair must find new ways to move forward but the opportunities on offer are not exactly appealing. Masaru, the loud mouth of the pair, ends up on the obvious path of the disaffected young man by joining a gang and finding for himself the familial comradeship of the criminal brotherhood rather than that of a traditional family.

Shinji’s path looks more solid as he begins to train as a serious athlete, honing his skills and perfecting his physique. He is, however, still unable to take control of his own life and repeatedly looks for more dominant male role models to follow. This might have worked out OK for him if he’d stuck with the paternal influence of the coaches, but Shinji is easily led and falls under the influence of an embittered older boxer, Hayashi, who is full of bad advice. Under Hayashi’s tutelage, Shinji learns illegal moves and that he can still drink and eat what he likes because you can just throw it all up again afterwards. When even that doesn’t work, Hayashi begins giving him diet pills which exemplify the quick fix approach he’s taking with his life. Needless to say, his training suffers and his previously promising career is soon on the rocks.

It’s not just the two guys either. Their shy friend with crush on the cafe girl leaves school and gets a good job as a salesman but the aggressive boss makes his working life a misery leading him to take a stand with a colleague and quit to become a taxi driver. No good at that either, he experiences exactly the same treatment and is now unable to earn enough money to support both himself and his wife. In fact, the only success story is the manzai standup comedy duo which Masaru mocked in the beginning. Knowing exactly what they wanted to do and working hard to get there, the pair have built a career and an audience through steadfastly sticking to their guns and refusing to listen to the naysayers. If you have direction, progress is possible, but for Shinji and Masaru who have no strong calling the future is a maze of uncertainties.

The kids have returned, not quite as men but in the first flush of failure, ready to start again. When Shinji asks Masaru if it’s really all over for them already, he tells him not to be silly – it hasn’t even started yet. The town goes on as normal, unchanging, kids goof off lessons and melancholy people waste time over coffee. Perhaps nothing will change for Masaru and Shinji and their aimless days of drifting from one thing to the next, looking for guidance and finding none, will continue but there’s fight in them yet and the possibility remains for them to find their way, as difficult as it may prove to be.


Out now on blu-ray (in the UK) from Third Window Films.

Original trailer (no subtitles)