Kamikaze Taxi (Masato Harada, 1995)

Kamikaze Taxi DVD coverAlmost 25 years later, Masato Harada’s post-bubble critique of a society failing to deal with its traumatic past feels oddly relevant. Xenophobia, misogyny, class oppression, and political corruption are far from unique problems but find fertile ground in a society in flux in which recent economic trauma has forced tensions to the fore. 1994 was a period of marked political chaos in which a corruption scandal had brought down a Prime Minister while the country debated electoral reform and attempted to deal with the ongoing recession, finding itself caught between the problems of past and future as the Showa era legacy continued to gnaw at the promise of Heisei.

Lowly goon Tatsuo (Kazuya Takahashi) has been charged with finding girls for corrupt politician Domon (Taketoshi Naito), but his world is turned inside out when Domon badly beats a prostitute leading his girlfriend Renko, a madam, to kick up a fuss which eventually gets her killed by sadistic mob boss Animaru (Mickey Curtis). Insensitively ordered to dispose of Renko’s body, Tatsuo’s resentment intensifies until he is shouldered with caring for the injured prostitute, Tama (Reiko Kataoka), who tells him that Domon keeps a large amount of cash hidden in his house. Seeing a chance to escape from the yakuza world whilst getting revenge on everyone involved in the death of Renko, Tatsuo enlists a few of his trusted guys and stages a heist. It goes badly wrong, leaving everyone except Tatsuo dead.

Meanwhile, on the run, Tatsuo gets a lift from Peruvian returnee Kantake (Koji Yakusho) now working as a taxi driver after being unable to find any other kind of work in the middle of a recession in a society not always welcoming of overseas workers. Although he was born in Japan and spent most of his childhood in the country, Kantake’s grasp of the language has become corrupted and he finds himself unable to communicate in his “homeland” despite being “Japanese”. Even without verbal communication, the two men bond and Kantake returns to collect Tatsuo despite becoming aware of his gangster past, forging a kind of brotherhood in their shared outsider status.

When Tatsuo is first introduced to Domon, the first thing he asks him is if he is “fully Japanese”. Domon “hopes” he is, but has his doubts because his name “sounds a bit Korean”. Harada opens the film with some on screen testimony from migrant workers in Japan, some of whom are, like Kantake, of Japanese birth if raised overseas but nevertheless find themselves regarded as foreigners – turned down for housing and employment, cast out from regular mainstream society. In the bubble era when it was all hands to the wheel, the migrant workers were an essential part of a well functioning economy, but now the bubble’s burst and they are no longer “needed” as construction dwindles and the demand for casual labour decreases, men like Domon begin to suggest simply sending them all “home”. 

A fierce nationalist, Domon is also a misogynist whose sexual proclivities run to extreme violence. Sadly, his views are not so far from the mainstream as might be hoped – the heartless yakuza think nothing of silencing Renko and then disappearing her body, while Tama’s assault is something bought and paid for. On TV, Domon appears on a panel discussing the comfort woman issue and unsurprisingly refuses to acknowledge it while the increasingly exasperated female contributor points out that the use of comfort women was not only a state sponsored crime but a crime against women which speaks volumes about current social attitudes. Domon insists that the Japanese women who “served” as prostitutes overseas were soldiers, while the “foreign” women were soulless money hungry mercenaries who deserved everything they got. In his view, all of today’s problems are down to “selfish” career women who should get back in their boxes as quickly as possible so everything can go back to “normal”.

The wartime legacy hangs uncomfortably over modern Japan as ultra nationalists like Domon harp on about their time in service, exploiting their fallen comrades for personal and political gains. Kantake too, it seems, has fought in a war and is the son of a former kamikaze pilot of the kind despised by men like Domon who themselves have continued to live even in defeat. Drugs and foreign wars link two eras and two continents, not to mention two men, as Kantake reflects on the true “kamikaze” spirit as seen in the beautiful flight of the Condor coasting on the winds above the Andes. It is indeed a gust of wind which saves him as he decides to fulfil Tatsuo’s quest for vengeance, remaining true to their brotherly bond and attempting to wipe the slate clean by eliminating the corrupting forces which deny each of them the right to live as full members of their society. Asked for his life story by a dying man, Kantake begins to speak but all too quickly is urged to “forget about Showa” – a partial plea for making peace with the past, getting rid of nationalism, the yakuza, the hierarchical and patriarchal society in favour of something kinder and more honest built out of its ashes.


Kamikaze Taxi screens at New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 1st July at 6pm plus Q&A with director Masato Harada.

HD re-release trailer (no subtitles)

Ley Lines (日本黒社会 LEY LINES, Takashi Miike, 1999)

ley-linesThe three films loosely banded together under the retrospectively applied title of the Black Society Trilogy are not connected in terms of narrative, characters, tone, or location but they do all reflect on attitudes to foreignness, both of a national and of a spiritual kind. Like Tatsuhito in the first film, Shinjuku Triad Society, the three young men at the centre of the final instalment, Ley Lines (日本黒社会 LEY LINES, Nihon Kuroshakai LEY LINES), have each faced prejudice and discrimination due to their Chinese heritage. Fleeing their small town blues and heading for the big city, they want out of the homeland which can find no place for them to try their luck in pastures new, but desperation breeds poor choices and if they find their freedom it may not be in the way they might have hoped.

Angry young man Ryuichi (Kazuki Kitamura) seems to have been in some trouble with the law recently, at least that’s the reason the pedantic government official gives for rudely rejecting Ryuichi’s attempts to get a passport whilst subtly underlining the fact that a “real” Japanese person would know you can’t have one whilst on probation. Offended, Ryuichi picks up a small potted tree and hits the uncooperative desk jockey on the head with it. With Brazil off the cards and no work or prospects on the horizon, Ryuichi decides to blow town with some friends. All but three of them change their minds at the train station but Ryuichi, his sensitive younger brother Shunrei (Michisuke Kashiwaya), and their friend the impulsive Chan (Tomorowo Taguchi) head for the sleazy streets of Shinjuku hoping to find someone to forge their papers for passage overseas.

Once there, hotheaded Ryuichi immediately begins to cause trouble and the trio get mixed up in an ongoing series of gang problems with the traditionally minded Chinese gangsters and a petty thug (Show Aikawa) selling what he claims is a new wonder drug, Toluelene. Teaming up with a brutalised local prostitute, Anita (who previously ripped them off leading to their ill advised Tolulene adventures), also desperate to get the hell out of Shinjuku, the four form an unconventional mini family but a last ditch solution to their dilemma will turn out to be a gamble too far.

Neatly uniting the themes of the previous two movies in the Black Society Trilogy, Ley Lines casts its heroes as multilayered outsiders. Miike begins the film with deliberately retro, aged footage of the brothers as young boys playing happily on a beach until some Japanese kids turn up and remind them that they’re different. Never allowed to just fit in, Ryuichi has become angry and frustrated whereas Shunrei studies harder than anyone trying to earn his place in a competitive society. If their Chinese heritage had set them at odds with their small town peers, the boys are just as much adrift in the big city, a trio of bumpkins wandering into all the wrong places naively thinking they can scrap their way out of Japan. Anita, also Chinese, shares in their desperation as her situation has become unsustainable. Shackled to a useless pimp and forced to endure frightening and barbaric treatment, Anita needs out of the flesh trade and the guys might just be her ticket to ride.

As he would later do so splendidly in Audition, Miike deliberately wrong foots us in the beginning as if he’s about to embark on a standard tale of a young man making his first big set of mistakes which will set him on a path to becoming a better person, but of course this isn’t where we’re going. The original Japanese title, “Japan Black Society” hints at the all pervading darkness which exists below the everyday world into which our trio of hapless dreamers have fallen. The guys are ordinary young men making ordinary mistakes which have a familiar, often comedic quality which only serves to deepen the agony they’re about to face.This underworld belongs to people like the mad gangster Wang (Naoto Takenaka) dreaming of his Chinese homeland and forcing young women to tell him folktales to remind him of it, the pimp the who mishandles the desperate Anita, and the deluded drug dealer Ikeda convinced he’s onto the next big thing. The boys don’t stand a chance. Ending with a typically poetic, bittersweet set of images as some of our heroes find a kind of freedom in an endless sea, Miike does not stint on the irony but his sympathy is very much with these disenfranchised youngsters, denied their futures at every turn and finally backed into a corner by the cruel and unforgiving nature of the Black Society which they inhabit.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shinjuku Triad Society (新宿黒社会 チャイナ・マフィア戦争, Takashi Miike, 1995)

shinjuku-triad-societyThese days Takashi Miike is known as something of an enfant terrible whose rate of production is almost impossible to keep up with and regularly defies classification. Pressed to offer some kind of explanation to the uninitiated, most will point to the unsettling horror of Audition or the audacity of the controversial Ichi the Killer whilst looking askance at the totally unexpected craziness of Yatterman or the child friendly Ninja Kids!!!. Before he was the gleefully unpredictable festival favourite, Miike, like many of his contemporaries, had made a name for himself in V-cinema, often with violent tales of modern day yakuza. Shinjuku Triad Society (新宿黒社会 チャイナ・マフィア戦争, Shinjuku Kuroshakai: China Mafia Senso) was Miike’s first venture into the mainstream theatrical world but retains his V-cinema focus with additional intent.

Set in the shady, sleazy, noir-tinted world of ‘90s Shinjuku, Shinjuku Triad Society opens with a voice-over from one of its central players telling us that this is a love story – sickening and sweet, as real love is. The action kicks off with this same character, a rent boy, Zhou, attempting to evade a police raid, slitting the throat of a regular street cop on his way out. Zhou is the lover of an unpredictable member of the Taiwanese mafia, Wang (Tomorowo Taguchi), who is creating several problems in the underground crime world both within Triad circles and with the local yakuza. Half Chinese policeman, Tatsuhito Kiriya (Kippei Shina), has been landed with the case but things begin to get personal when he discovers that his younger brother, Yoshihito, has been hired as a junior lawyer working directly for Wang’s gang.

Yakuza films often have a very strong homosocial atmosphere, emphasising the fraternal bonds between men but Shinjuku Triad Society is especially notable for its inclusion of explicit male homosexuality within the gangster underworld. If yakuza films are family dramas with funerals instead of weddings, Miike uses this intense male bonding as a comment on the wider nature of the family with an added focus on the place of the foreign in Japanese society. Wang and Tatsuhito are not so far removed in their desire to rebuild their own family unit, partly as a kind of protective measure against the world around them in which their Chinese heritage becomes a perpetual barrier. Wang has done this as the head of his own clan and with his lover Zhou at his side whereas Tatsuhito is intent on restoring his birth family by “rescuing” his brother from the clutches of the “Dragon’s Claw”.

Tatsuhito’s brother is, of course, a grown man who has the right to become a member of the underworld family, rejecting the blood ties to his policeman brother and doting parents if that is what he wants no matter what his brother might feel about it. Tatsuhito is disturbed to discover that Yoshihito has become Wang’s lover, even if he claims to be using him in order to progress his career. Both brothers threaten each other at gun point with Yoshihito exclaiming “if you don’t like the way I am, just kill me” which Tatsuhito refuses to do though it remains unclear if his brother’s sexuality is objectionable to him or merely a facet of his rejection of the values Tatsuhito holds dear.

Sexuality becomes a weapon as Zhou manoeuvres and manipulates through provoking and satisfying sexual desire. These are, however, consensual relationships even if a part of a wider, transactional game whereas anal rape is actively being employed as a police interrogation tactic (with a somewhat surprising spin). Even Tatsuhito, whose partner mocks him for a supposed dedication to being a “regular” cop, unwilling to take bribes or give in to corruption, himself engages in this behaviour anally raping a female prostitute from whom he wishes to extract information. Playing into the film’s darker themes of the interplay between sex, violence, and transaction, the prostitute instantly falls in love with him. Tatsuhito is clearly no saint even at the film’s beginning, but even so he continues to fall still further, seemingly outraged on discovering the true purpose of Wang’s “philanthropy” in his Taiwanese homeland, but doing relatively little about it other than adding it to the growing list of reasons why Wang must die. Eventually crossing the line from law enforcer to law breaker in the most taboo of ways, Tatsuhito finds himself rewarded even if his boss seems to be aware and in approval of what he’s done.

Tatsuhito may succeed in some of his aims, even if he has to exile himself from the family he was trying repair in the process though the closing voice over makes clear that he gains little in the long run and becomes nothing more than marginalia in the long, sad history of Shinjuku’s violent backstreets. Starting as he means to go on, Miike is entirely unafraid to step into some very uncomfortable areas, not least the way non-Japanese and those with partial Japanese heritage are regarded in the society of the time as well as the way these attitudes are filtered through recent Japanese history. Tatsuhito finds himself conflicted, choosing Japan in choosing the police but finding that it often fails to recognise him as its own son, whereas Yoshihito, in a sense, chooses China in associating himself with the Taiwanese gangsters. This central opposition of order and criminality is itself uncomfortable, but then undermined by the unorthodox nature of the local yakuza. Often strange and eerie, Shinjuku Triad Society takes place in a noirish world where there is no guiding morality – one to which Miike would often return though perhaps never with so much biting irony, where the absence of hope continues to imply its possibility.


Original trailer (English subtitles)