If you’re pushed out of the only group you’ve ever belonged to, where is it that you’re supposed to go? Produced as a graduation film, Sogo (now Gakuryu) Ishii’s second feature, Crazy Thunder Road (狂い咲きサンダーロード, Kuruizaki Thunder Road) captures a sense of youthful alienation in an age of prosperity in following in essence two men who choose to leave a group to which they have devoted their lives each for different reasons but both discovering that their new paths lead them nowhere but nihilistic despair.
After a brief opening sequence foreshadowing the conclusion in which a ruined motorcycle lies abandoned amid the smoke of a volcanic explosion, the main action begins with the abdication of the previous leader of the Maboroshi biker gang, Ken (Koji Nanjo), who feels he’s aged out of the bosozoku lifestyle and hopes to settle down with his barmaid girlfriend Noriko (Michiko Kitahara). The Maboroshi gang is about to join an alliance with two other local outfits, Dokuro and Gaya, to put an end to the internecine street violence. Young hothead Jin (Tatsuo Yamada) decides he wants no part of this soft and cuddly version of the biker life and abruptly leaves with three of his friends to start his own gang, Maboroshi Kamikazes, declaring that his old outfit should now consider him an enemy.
The problem is that system doesn’t like it if you step out of place and so the Elbou Alliance doesn’t really like it that Jin wouldn’t join, capturing and killing one of his friends to make a point. The more he tries to claim his independence, the more he is forced to realise that he is an ineffectual leader and being outside the group makes him vulnerable. His four guys are no match for the combined forces of three gangs which is one reason he later finds himself joining a new outfit, an ultra-nationalist militarist biker gang operated by former Maboroshi founder Takeshi (Nenji Kobayashi) who turns up in full infantry gear singing an imperial song, only to again become disillusioned because a life of order and austerity is the very opposite of everything he wanted which would be control and agency over his own life.
In another way, that might what Ken wanted too but he doesn’t find it either and in the film’s hyper masculine worldview he appears weakened in his choice. An entirely passive figure, he is even seen wearing a pretty pinny while helping Noriko out at the bar otherwise usually looking blank or sullen like a man half alive who’s already given up on life. To ram the point home we discover at the film’s conclusion that Noriko eventually leaves him essentially for not being manly enough now that he’s left the biker subculture though her new squeeze is clearly a yuppie salaryman which itself points to a paradigm shift in contemporary visions of masculinity.
Meanwhile, we’re suddenly presented with a new challenger, Shigeru (Masashi Kojima), who began as a shy foot soldier lead away by Jin but later finding a home with the nationalists, becoming Takeshi’s lover after Jin rejects the rigidity of militarism. Shigeru promises to protect both the town and Takeshi in an expression of the archetypal vision of masculinity as a protector, but love is it seems incompatible with this way of life in which strength is the only thing that matters. Ken loses Noriko because his desire to escape a life of violence renders him unmanly, while love doesn’t save Shigeru either because in the hyper masculine world in which he lives attachment is never anything other than weakness.
Literally maimed by his failed attempt at dominance, Jin is cast out further into the post-war industrial wasteland where he encounters a teenage boy selling drugs and an old man weapons implying that the mediation of death has shifted with the generations only to be undercut with another piece of shocking and random violence that reminds us of the arbitrary meaninglessness of these petty struggles for dominance. True freedom, the film implies lies only in death, Jin the ultimate outsider a man who cannot be part of any group and must always remain outside of the pack while it remains impossible to survive alone. Set in the near future inches closer to an apocalypse, Ishii’s proto-cyberpunk aesthetic owes as much to The Warriors as it does to Mad Max painting pre-bubble provincial Japan as a post-war wasteland inhabited only by the hopeless perpetually fighting over the scraps of an increasingly prosperous but oppressively conformist society.
Crazy Thunder Road is released on UK blu-ray on Feb. 21 courtesy of Third Window Films in an edition which includes an audio commentary by Tom Mes and video essay on jishu eiga by Jasper Sharp.
Trailer (English subtitles)