Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain, Yoji Yamada, 1988)

Downtown Heroes posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Yoji Yamada was an infrequent visitor to the youth movie. Best remembered for his long running Tora-san series, Yamada’s later output is marked by an alternation of laughter and tears, running between raucous family comedies and poignant examinations of wartime loss. Set in the immediate postwar period, 1988’s Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain) adapts the autobiographical novel by Akira Hayasaka for a twin tale of endings and beginnings as a group of boys prepare to leave the Japan of their childhood behind and set out into the brand-new post-war future.

Our narrator for the tale is Hayasaka’s stand-in, Kosuke (Hashinosuke Nakamura), a sensitive young man from the mountains studying at the prestigious boys’ boarding school in town. The Matsuyama high school is one of the last to still be operating in Japan’s pre-war educational model. In fact, when the boys graduate the school will shut down in favour of the American 6-3-3 standard model of organising the educational system. Nevertheless, Kosuke and his friends enjoy what seems like a fantastically broad curriculum to modern eyes, much of which consists of classic German literature. Rather than their family names, the boys refer to each other with a series of nicknames inspired by their studies and have been heavily influenced by European left-wing political ideology. Accordingly, they are less than happy about the imposed American “reforms” and, paradoxically, the restrictions placed on their individual “freedom” by the “imperialist” occupation.

The central drama revolves around two episodes occurring one after another during the final year of high school. The first involves Kosuke’s friend Arles (Toshinori Omi) and a prostitute he helps to rescue from the red light district – Sakiko (Eri Ishida) was supposed to elope with a student from the school, but he didn’t show up and if the people from the brothel she was sold to find her she’ll be in big trouble. Her suitor turns out to be a fraud, but the boys are committed to saving her and hide Sakiko in their dorm, sharing their meagre rations with her before helping her escape to her home town. Meanwhile, the boys are also preparing for the very last culture festival the school will ever see at which they will present their adaptation of a classic German play. The snag is, the play needs a girl. Eventually the gang enlist the help of Fusako (Hiroko Yakushimaru) – a student at the girls’ school recently repatriated from Manchuria who also happens to be the young lady Kosuke had a meet cute with on the road and has been in love with ever since. Trouble brews when Gan (Tetta Sugimoto), the play’s director, falls in love with her too.

Told from the POV both of the old and the young Kosuke, the atmosphere is one of intense melancholy and inescapable nostalgia. Though these were times of hardship – rationing is fierce and intense, so much so that the school no longer serves meals at all on Sundays and the boys largely subsist on rice gruel, they were also times of joy and possibility. These are however youngsters in the best tradition of the sensitive young men of Japanese literature. They feel everything deeply, fully aware that they are living on the cusp of something new, which necessarily also means to be standing atop a grave. Their world is collapsing and the values they’ve been given (progressive though they seem to be) are about to be thrown out of the window. They have been taught that nothing is more important than their personal autonomy and that personal freedom is attained only through overcoming hardship, but their lives will increasingly be dictated by occupying forces and they feel themselves robbed of something without the right to reply.

Nevertheless their problems are also ordinary teenage ones of romantic crises and friendship dilemmas. Kosuke struggles with his love at first sight crush on Fusako but remains too diffident to say anything until it’s almost too late, while he also struggles to figure out what the most proper thing to do is when Gan reveals he is also in love with her. Gan, a sensitive writer, apparently burns with longing – so much so that he’s written a book long confession of love in apology for being unable to declare himself in person. Kosuke, a good friend, agrees to deliver the letter but both of them have neglected to consider Fusakao’s feelings so bound up are they in their own solipsistic dramas. Fusako was also struck by the love bug on her first meeting with Kosuke and has been patiently waiting for him to say something (as is the custom of the time). She is therefore doubly hurt and offended when he delivers a mini-tome on the theme of love from someone else before attempting to leave abruptly in a huff. Truth be told, there are few women who would enjoy being handed a thesis as a confession, but Fusako is really not in the mood to read one now.

Ending on a melancholy epilogue in which the old Kosuke looks on at field of young men playing American football before some others in running shorts brush past him and a young couple enjoy an evening walk, Yamada embraces the mild sense of deflation that has been building since the beginning. Young love faded and the dreams of youth were destined to come to nothing – not quite a tragedy, or perhaps only one of the ordinary kind, but food for the regrets of age all the same. The times were hard, and then they got better but somehow they were never so happy again. A youth drama indeed.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Theme song “Jidai” performed by Hiroko Yakushimaru

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