P. P. Rider (ションベンライダー, Shinji Somai, 1983)

PP rider posterDespite a brief resurgence following a retrospective at Tokyo Filmex followed by another at Edinburgh International Film Festival, Shinji Somai remains frustratingly underrepresented in the West. Though his career is more varied than most give him credit for, encompassing the melancholy pink film Love Hotel and masculinity drama The Catch among others, Somai is justifiably most closely associated with his youth films. Running from the artier Typhoon Club and The Friends to the rabidly populist in the Kadokawa idol movies Sailor Suit and Machine Gun and Tokyo Heaven, Somai’s work is unique in managing to catch hold of a zeitgeist, capturing the essence of the contemporary teenager more or less in the way they saw themselves rather than the way they were generally seen by adults. Like many Japanese teen movies of the ‘80s, the world of P.P. Rider (ションベンライダー, Shonben Rider) is essentially a safe one – our three protagonists get themselves mixed up in some dark and shady business but they are never afraid, do not lose heart, and face danger with only contempt and determination.

Somai opens with one of his trademark long takes which whirls around from two suspicious looking yakuza types to a bunch of kids playing around in the school swimming pool. One of the kids, a rotund boy who goes by the nickname Debunaga (he has the rather pretentious name of Nobunaga Deguchi, “Nobunaga” being the first name of a historical tyrant) is being a bit of a twit and having a go at one of our heroes – JoJo (Masatoshi Nagase). Debunaga (Yoshikazu Suzuki) then tries to “drown” JoJo’s friend Jisho (lit. Dictionary) (Shinobu Sakagami), before the third member of the trio arrives – an androgynous girl who goes by the name of Bruce (Michiko Kawai). Bruce neatly dispatches the petty high school punks while a teacher, Arane (Hideko Hara), attempts to shift some bosozoku who’ve invaded school property.

Meanwhile, the petty yakuza get on with their plan. They’ve come to kidnap Debunaga – his pharmacist dad apparently has a sideline in drug dealing, but before they can grab him, Debunaga is kidnapped by entirely different kidnappers! Our three heroes, JoJo, Jisho, and Bruce are very annoyed about this because they didn’t get a proper chance to get even with Debunaga. Accordingly, they decide the best way to make use of their summer holiday is to rescue him themselves and make sure they get their revenge before the kidnappers do him in.

P.P. Rider means exactly you think it means, except it doesn’t quite mean anything at all aside from perfectly capturing the strange mix of childish jokes and serious crime that defines the movie’s tone. The atmosphere is absurd and ironic, the kids distrust adult authority and attempt to define their own nascent personalities by effectively rejecting them – using nicknames, dressing in highly codified ways, and either conforming to or subverting social codes as they see fit. Amusingly enough, the trio take a brief pause in the middle of their quest to get haircuts and change outfits, after which they emerge dressed in each other’s clothes as if implying they are almost interchangeable. 

In keeping with most Japanese youth dramas, parents are an entirely off screen presence. Adult input comes from two very different directions (plus the occasional interventions of bumbling beat cop Tanaka) – a down-at-heels yakuza called Gombei (Tatsuya Fuji), and the kids’ teacher, Arane. Gombei, a drug addled gangster, is hardly an ideal role model (especially when he tries to drown Bruce and attacks Jisho with a samurai sword), but he does eventually take the kids under his wing with JoJo picking up the classic deputy role in learning the yakuza ropes. Arane, by contrast begins by letting them down. Harried by the bosozoku she tells the kids to buzz off when they try to talk to her, telling them that she’s off to hot springs town Atami and they’d best come back next term. Nevertheless she eventually becomes an integral part of their group, assisting in the quest and helping to rescue Debunaga while the strange finale plays out before her impassive eyes.

The kids didn’t really want to save Debunaga, and are conflicted when they eventually locate him, but in the end it’s friendship which wins out as they each celebrate their various roles in the successful rescue whilst lamenting the relative lack of care they’ve received from adults and authority figures aside from Arane and Gombei. Absurdist and ironic, P.P. Rider is a strange children’s odyssey in which the adolescent teens head out on a dark and dangerous adventure but live in the relative safety of the world and so nothing very bad is going to happen to them despite the terrible things they eventually witness. Classical long takes jostle alongside Somai’s mobile camera, random intertitles, and frequent breaks for pop music (this is an idol movie after all) in a frenzy of post-modern gags but somehow it all just works, and does so with wit and charm.


Opening scene (no subtitles)

Interview with actor Masatoshi Nagase from the Tokyo Filmex screening in 2011 (Japanese only, no subtitles)

Michiko Kawai’s main titles song – Watashi, Takanna Koro

The Crazy Family (逆噴射家族, Sogo Ishii, 1984)

crazy family posterThe family drama went through something of a transformation at the beginning of the 1980s. Gone are the picturesque, sometimes melancholy evocations of the transience of family life, these families are fake, dysfunctional, or unreliable even if trying their best. Morita’s The Family Game, released in 1983, kick started this re-examination of the primary social unit through attacking it Teorema-style as the family’s tutor rips through their generic middle-class existence by adopting each of their pre-defined social roles in turn. One year later Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family (逆噴射家族, Gyakufunsha Kazoku) turns the director’s punk aesthetic to a similar theme but this time the family destroys itself in its earnestness to live the Japanese dream in the increasing economic possibility of the pre-bubble era. The Kobayashis are the perfect example of the “typical” aspiring family, but what is the “sickness” that the family patriarch is so afraid of, who (or what) is it that is sick, and if it is possible to be “cured” what would such a cure look like?

Mr and Mrs Kobayashi have achieved their dream – getting out of the danchi and into a suburban house that they own (or will own, once the mortgage is paid off) outright. Mr. Kobayashi, Katsukuni (Katsuya Kobayashi), is a typical salaryman while his wife Saeko (Mitsuko Baisho) stays at home to look after their two children – middle schooler Erika (Yuki Kudo) and her older brother Masaki (Yoshiki Arizono), currently a “ronin” studying to retake his university entrance exams determined to get into the prestigious Tokyo University.

Blissfully happy, the family are adapting well enough to their new home but there’s always that lingering feeling of impending doom, as if all this is too good to be true. Sure enough, Masaki’s adoption of a stray dog alerts the family to a more serious problem – termites. Suddenly terrified that something is literally trying to eat his house out from under him, Katsukuni goes on a fumigating rampage but the termites are not the only source of tension. Turning up right on time, grandpa arrives for a visit after falling out with Katsukuni’s older brother with whom he’d been living. The Kobayashis moved so that the kids could finally have their own rooms (and mum and dad some privacy) but grandpa shows no signs of leaving meaning Katsukuni is sharing with his dad and Saeko has been relegated to Erika’s room.

The house is what the family has always dreamed of – owning one’s own home is no mean feat for those raised in the post-war era, but it’s still a small environment for five people even if much nicer than their tiny city flat. More than just a structure it represents everything the ordinary family dreams of – peace, prosperity, harmony and a life lived in tune with the social order. Katsukuni’s fears that a mysterious “sickness” is plaguing his loved ones is a sign of his discomfort with this ordered way of living. Despite their stereotypical qualities, there is something not exactly right about each of his “ordinary” family members – mum stripteases for grandad’s friends, precocious teenage daughter Erika is not sure if she wants to be a pro-wrestler or an idol and spends all of her time “idolising” her favourite stars, and son Masaki has become a proto-hikikomori so obsessed with studying that he’s taken to stabbing himself in the leg every time he starts to nod off so that he can keep hitting the books rather than the hay.

Yet for all that it’s Katsukuni himself who is the most “sick” in his inability to reconcile himself to social conformity. Despite being apparently successful, he has deep seated feelings of inadequacy which convince him that something is going to go wrong with the family he feels a duty to protect. Wanting to be a good husband and father, Katsukuni thinks he has to “cure” his family of their strange behaviours and make them the sort of people who live in nice houses in the suburbs, but only succeeds in driving himself out of his mind.

Grandpa’s antics have the other family members well and truly fed up but Katsukuni feels just as much filial piety as he does responsibility towards his own children and cannot bring himself to tell his father to go and so he hits on an extreme solution – he’s going to dig a basement, by hacking up the living room floor and pushing downwards, towards hell. Surprise, surprise, his dream home is atop a nest of termites, the bugs are literally working their way in but, ironically enough, Katsukuni is the biggest termite of them all as his very own “hill” begins to appear just in front of the sofa while he tries to find a space for the older generation in a modern home.

Grandpa is an unwelcome manifestation of the inescapable past. When everything goes to hell and the house becomes a battlefield, grandpa manages to dig out his wartime uniform complete with a sword and attempts to assume command by dividing the house into sectors before capturing and trussing his own granddaughter whom he then threatens to rape and torture, apparently eager to revisit his Manchurian military service and all of its implied cruelties. When Katsukuni believes that all is lost and his family can’t be saved he opts for the most culturally appropriate solution – group suicide, but his family won’t play along. Paranoid and delusional, they turn on each other, defending themselves with icons of their respective roles, venting their frustrations and long held grudges in one prolonged battle of violent madness.

When the air finally clears there is only one solution – the house has to go. The desire for a “conventional life” or the feeling of not achieving it is, in that sense, “the sickness” which has infected the Kobayashi family. The finale sees them finally living happily once again but literally “outside” of the mainstream, in a totally open world where there is space for everyone – all quirks embraced, all extremes born. Everyone has their place but the family remains whole, freed from the burden of chasing an unrealisable dream.


A short musical clip from the film

Tampopo (タンポポ, Juzo Itami, 1985)

tampopo posterSome people love ramen so much that the idea of a “bad” bowl hardly occurs to them – all ramen is, at least, ramen. Then again, some love ramen so much that it’s almost a religious experience, bound up with ritual and the need to do things properly. A brief vignette at the beginning of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (タンポポ) introduces us to one such ramen expert who runs through the proper way of enjoying a bowl of noodle soup which involves a lot of talking to your food whilst caressing it gently before finally consuming it with the utmost respect. Ramen is serious business, but for widowed mother Tampopo it’s a case of the watched pot never boiling. Thanks to a cowboy loner and a few other waifs and strays who eventually become friends and allies, Tampopo is about to get some schooling in the quest for the perfect noodle whilst the world goes on around her. Food becomes something used and misused but remains, ultimately, the source of all life and the thing which unites all living things.

Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a middle-aged man with a fancy hat, and his truck mate Gun (Ken Watanabe), younger, tight white jeans and colourful neckerchief, have become ramen experts thanks to their road bound life. Taking a break during a heavy rain storm, the pair run into a little boy being beaten up by three others and, after scaring the assailants off, escort him into the ramen restaurant where he lives with his widowed mother, Tampopo. Goro and Gun get the stranger in town treatment, but decide to sit down and order a bowl each anyway before a getting into a fight with another diner. Despite her skills as a home cook, Tampopo’s ramen is distinctly second-rate which explains why her business isn’t taking off. Goro and Gun spend some time helping her figure out where she’s going wrong leading Tampopo to beg them to stay, or at least come back when they have time, and teach her what it takes to make the perfect bowl.

Essentially a hybrid between a western and a sports movie, Tampopo has its fair share of training montages as the titular heroine tries to improve her stamina by taking intensive runs, carrying heavy pots of water from one place to another, and constantly trying get her cooking time down to three minutes. The lone woman on the “ranch” that is her restaurant, Tampopo may not be contending with boisterous cattle, threatening neighbours, or disapproving townsfolk but she is being mentored to become her own master as much as anything else. Goro is her strong and silent teacher, but, like Shane, he’s a man not meant to be tied down and is essentially teaching her how to survive alone however painful it may be for him to leave.

This is a fairly radical idea in and of itself. Tampopo’s goal is not another marriage and a man to mind the ranch, but the creation of a successful business which will support both herself and her son built on genuine skills and a lot of hard work. Goro, a ramen aficionado, takes charge but ropes in a few other “experts” to help him including a ramen loving former doctor now living on the streets, the private chef of a wealthy man the gang saved when he almost choked on mochi, and the guy Goro fought with in the beginning who also happens to be a childhood friend of Tampopo nursing a lifelong crush on her.  From each of these men, as well as friendly (or not) rivalry with local competitors, Tampopo learns everything she needs to succeed including the confidence in herself to carry it through.

Whilst Tampopo and co. are busy figuring out the zen of ramen, Itami wanders off for a series of strange vignettes examining more general attitudes to food beginning with Koji Yakusho’s white suited, cinephile gangster who vows bloody murder on anyone daring to eat noisy snacks during the movie. The gangster and his moll eventually retreat to a hotel room where they find new and actually quite strange ways of using food to enhance their pleasure but their story leads us to others in the hotel from a young man stuck in a business meeting who shows up his less cultured colleagues with his culinary knowledge and either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that you’re supposed to order the same as your boss lest you be implying his choice of dish is “wrong”, to a group of young women taking a class in the proper way to eat spaghetti. The instructor (played by veteran actress Mariko Okada), goes to great lengths to explain that it’s considered very uncouth to make any kind of noise whilst eating pasta, only for a westerner of undisclosed nationality to loudly slurp his noodles half way across the room.

While these two episodes showcase the ridiculousness of food etiquette, others take a more surreal direction such as in the strange episode of an old lady who likes to sneak into the local supermarket and torment the clerk by squeezing the fruits, cheeses, and pastries while he chases her round the shop. Here appetites are to be indulged, even if they’re strange, rather than suppressed in favour of someone else’s idea of the proper way to behave. Yet that doesn’t mean that food is something throwaway, to be consumed without thought – in fact, it’s the opposite as Goro’s tutelage of Tampopo shows. Skills alone are not enough, achieving the zen of cookery is a matter of touch and sensitivity, of shared efforts and interconnected strife. Like a dandelion blowing in the wind, Tampopo’s ramen shop gives as it receives, generously and without pretension.


Available now in the UK/US courtesy of Criterion Collection!

Original 1985 trailer (English subtitles)