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.


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