Empire of Kids (ガキ帝国, Kazuyuki Izutsu, 1981)

Empire of Kids posterJapan in 1981 was a vastly different place than the Japan of 1967. Rising economic prosperity had produced an amiable social calm in which desire for conventional success and increasingly aspirational consumerism had replaced the firebrand need for social change which had defined the previous decade. Filmmaker, film critic, and sometimes outspoken TV personality Kazuyuki Izutsu was presumedly not a huge fan of consumerism and for this, his first “mainstream” film made for ATG, retreats back to the Osaka of 1967 in which petty street punks lamented their lack of opportunities by banding together and battling for control of their respective neighbourhoods like boys in the schoolyard only armed with knives and filled with nihilistic desperation.

The film opens with our “hero”, Ryu (Shinsuke Shimada), being released from juvie after presumably getting into trouble for his petty punk antics. Waiting for him are his two best friends – soulful zainichi Korean Ken (Cho Bang-ho), and rockabilly Chabo (Ryusuke Matsumoto). Ryu is released alongside another boy, Ko (Takeshi Masu), whom he tries to recruit into their mini gang but quickly becomes an enemy, teaming up with the boys’ rivals – the Hokushin Alliance, while also becoming a potential rival for Ryu’s old girlfriend with dancing dreams, Kyoko (Megumi Sanuki). The boys, still in their last year of high school, become obsessed with trouncing their competition, proving their manhood on the streets while asserting their rightful place as the dominant forces in their native area, but as it increases in intensity the game becomes frighteningly serious and its dangers all too apparent.

Izutsu’s film fits comfortably into the “delinquent” genre but perhaps takes its cues from the Hollywood cinema of alienation more than the tough guy antics of the youth movie past. From Chabo’s bright red jacket and neatly greased quiff, the starting point is Rebel Without a Cause as these otherwise not too bad kids struggle with their place in the world, unable to see a clear path and direction for themselves in the society of 1967 which seemed both frustratingly open and closed to unremarkable lower middle-class boys. Ryu’s brother is going to give up football to go to cram school so he doesn’t end up like Ryu, while Ryu has taken to reading brain training books to try and get back on the academic path to success which he fears may have already passed him by. Ken, idly talking of the future, can’t see much beyond winding up in the yakuza, opening a bowling alley, or maybe becoming a comedian (this is Osaka after all). None of these guys is going to university or getting a salaryman job, they know not much awaits them outside of low-paid manual work, marriage, children, family and death, so they take their frustrations out on each other playing at gangsterism out on the streets.

For Ryu, Ken, and Chabo the reasons for their violence are “honourable” – they want to keep their local space local and are committed to defending it from the “external” threat of the shadier street punks from uptown. Apparently from stable economic backgrounds, the boys’ acts of street justice have no particular economic component, in contrast to those of the Hokushin Alliance which positions itself as a yakuza training school with a brutal hazing regime for new recruits and a business plan which involves hunting young women and trapping them through rape and blackmail to force them into prostitution. 

Aside from lack of direction, Ken – the most introspective of the boys, also has to deal with the constant threat of discrimination due to his roots as an ethnic Korean living in Japan. One of the reasons he hates the Hokushin Alliance and distrusts some of the other gangs is that they deliberately target Koreans in racially motivated attacks. One of his old friends, Zeni (Masaaki Namura), is a member of an all Korean street gang which attempts to defend itself against the strong anti-Korean sentiment out on the streets but finds itself outgunned by the sheer weight of numbers. Ken speaks Korean openly with his friends (even when there are non-Koreans close-by) and has no interest in hiding his ethnic identity even if he uses his Japanese name in his every day life, while Ko (whom we later realise is also ethnically Korean) hides his ethnicity completely and subsumes himself into the Hokushin with a view to finally joining the yakuza even whilst knowing that the gangs he has joined are extremely prejudiced against “foreigners” and Koreans in particular. Ken would never out someone deliberately, but finds Ko’s attitude difficult to stomach, not only in his willingness to hide his roots to fit in with gangster thugs, but in his willingness to persecute his own in order to do it.

The atmosphere that surrounds the boys is one of intense futility. They fight each other pointlessly, like children in the playground, and it’s all fun and games until someone reaches for a knife. Petty disputes quickly escalate when the yakuza gets itself involved in children’s games – an assault rifle, after all, has little place in a kids’ disco where teenagers come to drink Coca Cola and slow dance to a terrible covers band singing the “uncool” music of the day. Despite the melancholy air of frustration and inevitability, Empire of Kids (ガキ帝国, Gaki Teikoku) adopts the otherwise warm and nostalgic tone of the Japanese teen movie, embracing the typically Osakan need for spiky comedy even as our guys fall ever deeper into the hole their society has cut out for them. There are few rays of sunshine to be found here, friendships are broken, trusts betrayed, and futures ruined but then again, that was only life, in Osaka, in 1967.


His Motorbike, Her Island (彼のオートバイ彼女の島, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1986)

His Motorcycle Her IslandLike many directors during the 1980s, Nobuhiko Obayashi was unable to resist the lure of a Kadokawa teen movie but His Motorbike, Her Island (彼のオートバイ彼女の島, Kare no Ootobai, Kanojo no Shima) is a typically strange 1950s throwback with its tale of motorcycle loving youngsters and their ennui filled days. Switching between black and white and colour, Obayashi paints a picture of a young man trapped in an eternal summer from which he has no desire to escape.

Ko (Riki Takeuchi) tells us that he’s an unusual guy because most people dream in colour but all of his dreams are in monochrome. He’s a student and dispatch rider overly attached to his admittedly very handsome Kawasaki motorbike. After getting beaten up by his boss due to deflowering the guy’s sister and then breaking her heart, Ko skips town for the open road, just him and his bike. However, he repeatedly runs into the same mysterious girl who lives on an equally mysterious island and develops a deep seated need for her, secondary only to that for his bike. Miyo (Kiwako Harada) has also taken a liking to the Kawasaki and is intent on getting her full motorcycle license. Her growing obsession with the bike threatens to become an all consuming need driving a wedge between the two young lovers.

Obayashi begins in a black and white sequence window boxed in the centre of the screen before expanding to 4:3 when Ko has his fight with his boss and only hits 16:9 for the first colour scene which sees Ko taking off on his beloved bike. He told us that his dreams are in black and white but the film seems to disagree with him, segueing into various gradated colour schemes as Ko narrates his melancholy tale of tragic lost love. Ko is not necessarily a very reliable narrator in any case, but in each instance the on screen action is always coloured by the recollections of the older man who offers his voice over commentary.

Like many Obayashi films, the overriding feeling is one of melancholy mixed with a youthful apathy.  This is a story about modern young people, but refracted through rebellious ‘50s movies from Rebel Without a Cause to The Wild One and a hundred others inbetween. Ko is a university student (of what we don’t know) but seems to have no great ambitions. He takes things as he finds them and his only passion is the bike itself. When he first meets Miyo and she asks him where he’s going, he simply replies that he’s “looking for the wind” – a motif which recurs throughout the film.

Later on when he arrives at Miyo’s island, it takes on an opposing symbolism to his bike. Just as Miyo can’t get enough of the Kawasaki, Ko is originally attracted to the island much more than to the girl. It’s not quite a coincidence that each time he visits there it’s the Bon festival where the dead are temporarily allowed to return to the world of the living. Later he says that Miyo wasn’t just a girl but an island, and he wan’t just a boy but a bike, and together the two of them became the wind. They became one entity, inseparable one from the other. Finally the esoteric colour scheme begins to make sense, we’ve been watching a ghost story all along. This island is an unreal place, existing only inside Ko’s memory where Miyo waits for him with a full tank of gas.

Once again youth is seen as a brief yet unforgettable period filled with longing and regret. The older man is forever trapped by this one glorious summer, a place to which he can never return but neither can he escape. The nihilistic tone and voice over narration have an edge of the French New Wave but ‘50s American cinema of alienation seems closer to Obayashi’s intentions. An elliptical and strange tale of tragic love retold as a ghost story, filled with phantoms of memory and landscapes coloured by dream and emotion, His Motorbike, Her Island is another characteristically offbeat effort from Obayashi which once again embraces the aimlessness of youth and age’s regret.


Unsubtitled trailer – goes through to a video of Kiwako Harada singing the title song, in case you were in any doubt what this movie is for.

Or, here is the film’s opening (which also features the title song)