Review for Crows Zero
While I have been partaking heavily of Far Eastern cinema in recent years, it's by some strange confluence of fate that I have avoided the work of one of Japanese cinema's most prolific, and most varied directors, Takashi Miike. I've missed out on Audition, Ichi the Killer, and Sukiyaki Western Django, and it was only last year with the release of 13 Assassins that I got to see my first Takashi Miike film. That was certainly an eye-opener. And now, MVM, my favourite anime distributor, is getting in on the Miike act as well. Thanks to them, I now get to see my second ever Takashi Miike movie, Crows Zero. Even better, they have the sequel Crows Zero 2 lined up for summer as well. It's the ideal live action feature for an anime distributor, based as it is on the Crows manga by Hiroshi Takahashi. It's a typical anime premise as well, with a high school full of delinquents, fighting amongst each other to be the top dog in school. It's just the sort of movie that you hanker for once you've got your fill of Tenjho Tenge and Ikki Tousen.
The film begins with an execution. A petty yakuza flunky named Ken Katagiri has to pay the price for his transgressions. You don't expect his last words to be the name of a delinquent. You don't expect his dying thoughts, as his body sinks into the depths of the ocean, to be that of high school student Genji Takaya, but it was when Ken Katagiri met Genji Takaya, that his life was irrevocably altered, for better or for worse.
Suzuran High School is the dumping ground for teenage society. It's where all the delinquents wind up, it's where the teachers fear to show their faces, it's where gangs, divided by classrooms, vie to be top dogs. No one has ever managed to unify the school through sheer force of their fists, but this year is different. This is the year when Tamao Serizawa is the toughest kid in school, and this is the year when Genji Takaya, heir to a yakuza empire, transfers in. He's promised his father that he'll rule Suzuran, thus proving that he has the power to inherit the family business. Ken Katagiri mistakes Genji for Serizawa on the first day of the school year, and after Genji batters Ken's yakuza underlings into submission, an unlikely friendship is formed. To truly unify Suzuran, Genji needs information about the school and how the classes are set up. Ken dropped out of Suzuran when he was a student, unable to make his mark, and he now sees his chance to live vicariously through Genji. Let battle commence...
Crows Zero gets a 1.85:1 anamorphic NTSC transfer on this UK region 2 disc. It's ever so slightly windowboxed to counter overscan issues, and unfortunately it's not a progressive transfer. There is a slight jerkiness to pans and scrolls that takes a few minutes of getting used to. The image itself is clear and sharp, if a little soft, and possessing that slight dullness of palette I've come to expect from some Japanese live action films. Otherwise the image is clear and well defined, and the action sequences, shaky cam notwithstanding, come across with suitable impact. The final fight sequence takes place during a rainstorm, and when the action goes slow-motion for poetic effect, a few bursts of compression artefacts do present themselves, but otherwise it's a fairly agreeable transfer. There is a US Blu-ray release of Crows Zero, out just last week if you're looking for better specifications.
Audio comes in the simple form of DD 2.0 Stereo Japanese, with optional English subtitles. They default to on, and you'll have to use your remote to switch them off, as there is no explicit menu option. The audio is clear throughout; the action comes across well enough, with Prologic offering a bit of surround, although the dialogue can be a little low in the mix at times. The subtitles are timed accurately, and free of error.
Crows Zero is what Cromartie High School might have been, if Cromartie High School was actually about the violence. It has a similar comic sensibility. The sense of humour, the over the top characters, and the ridiculous faux seriousness with which it approaches its subject matter does put me in mind of the satirical anime series. Crows Zero on the other hand is less about the satire, and more about just delivering a knock about comedy action romp.
It's that bizarre situation that only occurs in manga and anime, where a high school full of delinquents wind up battling each other to see who will rule the roost. Where are the teachers? Where are the authorities? Who cares as long as we get to see high school kids beating two shades of tar out of each other?
It's not solely a battle tournament though, and quite frankly that would get a little boring. Crows Zero has fun with the concept, develops a set of bizarre characters, and unfolds its story with no little humour. The focus is on the central characters of Genji Takaya and Tamao Serizawa. Genji is the new kid in school, transferred in for his final year, and strongly motivated to make an impact. Serizawa on the other hand is the likeliest candidate to win, the strongest delinquent in the school, and Genji's ultimate target. The problem is that Genji needs to know the school's structure, and the characters to have a chance of winning. He can't just go in blindly and hope to beat everyone up.
That's where the comedy Yakuza comes in. Ken used to go to Suzuran, and sees in Genji the chance to vicariously succeed where he actually failed originally. So Ken becomes Genji's guide to winning the battles, and he tells him how to take charge of his class, and then use that class to form alliances with the other classes, so that he has enough strength to challenge Serizawa at the end. At the same time, Serizawa is doing the same thing, trying to unite the school classes. And it all comes down to who has the biggest faction in the school at the end of the movie when the big showdown occurs.
But uniting the factions isn't necessarily just a matter of using one's fists. It could come down to a game of darts, or getting a rival laid, which isn't easy when said rival has a problem with premature ejaculation, and worse, likes wearing white suits. Genji is the typical tough guy, son of a Yakuza boss, and prone to beating his way through a problem. On the other hand Serizawa is a pretty unlikely delinquent, more than a little dopey and easily distracted. When he gets his mind on the matter he's a relentless fighter, but he doesn't come across as all that aggressive in the story. The problem comes in the form of his lieutenants, who are apt to act on their own, and in underhand and despicable ways.
It's a pretty fun, back and forth between the various characters. The problem is that the film is a little bloated and overlong. It never really picks up pace and gets going. That's because it's weighed down by subplots and diversions. Naturally there is a girl involved, and Genji's relationship with Ruka is pretty central to the film, even though at times it does slow things down. More of a problem is the Yakuza story. That Ken is a Yakuza flunky is one thing, that Genji is the son of a crime boss is another. But it turns out that Ken's Yakuza boss is in conflict with Genji's father, and we get a whole other side story of duelling Yakuza that drags the story down. Just when you want to see what's happening next in the delinquent civil war, we switch to some gangster pontificating instead. In addition to all this, one of Serizawa's friends has a brain aneurysm, so he winds up fighting for his life in a surgical theatre.
The finale of the film cuts between the grand delinquent battle finale, a rock ballad (Ruka is a rock singer), the surgeons at work, and the climax of the Yakuza storyline, and for me this about two plots too many. Crows Zero is a good deal of fun, with some exciting action sequences, but it's weighed down by its own narrative, and would have been better off with a leaner runtime (and fewer Yakuza). MVM have the sequel Crows Zero II lined up in a couple of months, and hopefully it can build on a very promising and entertaining first film.