[Another review pulled forward from the archive to coincide with the film's screening at this year's Udine Far East Film Festival, this one my review of Takashi Miike's Crows 0, originall reviewed when it screened at the American Film Market.]
As the final credits rolled up the screen at the end of Takashi Miike's Crows 0 Fantasia programming honcho Mitch Davis, clearly riding an adrenaline high from what we'd just witnessed, turned to me and commented that this was arguably the most commercially minded film that Takashi Miike has ever done. Obviously, yes, this is true on at least one very important level - the film having just opened in the number one spot at the Japanese box office - but on another it is still very much a Takashi Miike film though and through.
Put Ichi the Killer, Audition, Gozu and the like out of your mind for a moment and think instead about the fistful of films Miike has done about growing up young and poor in Osaka, films he has repeatedly said are his most personal and the most important to him among his extensive filmography, particularly the Young Thugs pictures. Placed in that context it is immediately obvious why Miike was offered the chance to adapt this popular and hugely successful manga, just as it's immediately obvious why he jumped at the chance: Crows 0 is essentially a third Young Thugs film, albeit it one played out on a larger scale and with higher production values than earlier efforts. The end result? You'll come for the fights, but you'll stay for the characters. Brash, playfully violent, full of an over riding love of life, and absolutely filled with little character flourishes that bring the world to life Crows 0 is an effective, engaging, touching and hugely entertaining reminder that Miike has plenty of substance to back up his style and that the man has absolutely never gotten the respect he deserves for his ability to work with young actors.
Shun Oguri is Genji, a student freshly transferred to Suzuran high, a school legendary for the out of control violence that dominates social life there. The students are banded into factions, rival gangs openly battling for control in the halls, teachers or any other form of authority absolutely impotent. It's the sort of school nobody in their right mind would willingly choose to attend but Genji has done just that, transferring to the school with the goal of doing what nobody has every done in the entire history of the place: battle his way to the top of the heap, unite the factions and be recognized as the undisputed king of Suzuran, a feat his yakuza boss father tried and failed to accomplish himself as a student of Suzuran decades before.
In Genji's way are numerous factions, most notably the one led by Serizawa, a fearsome fighter who currently controls roughly half of the school with the help of his loyal inner circle, prime among whom is Tokio who was himself one of Genji's closest friends years before, before they had some unspecified falling out. Though a brilliant fighter Genji lacks the social skills to unite the factions, a factor recognized by Ken, a former student of Suzuran who is now a yakuza in a rival gang to Genji's father, who sees in Genji the chance to live out his own unfulfilled dreams and offers to coach the youngster on his path to the top.
As is often the cast with manga adaptations - particularly ones based on long running series with a number of popular characters - the cast here is enormous and sprawling, the politics between varying factions complex, which necessitates a longish run time but Miike gives each character a distinctive personality, drawing each into unique life, and fills the picture with so much energy that the second act lag that plagues so many of his films is entirely absent here. Crows 0 is boisterous and energetic throughout, lacking in the transgressiveness that many of Miike's fans look for in his films but still loaded with the kinds of quirky touches - watch for the bowling sequence - and bursts of oddball comedy that make him so unique. The entire cast is dead solid, particularly the core triangle of Genji, Serizawa and Tokio, with Miike once again treating the violence as a sign of the energy of youth and love of life rather than as something necessarily destructive while, again, making pointed comments about the value of loyalty and perseverance. In a strange way Miike's violent youth films actualy tend to be his most morally centered and this is again the case here.
Many fans of Miike have been leery of his increasing involvement with the Japanese studio system, afraid that big budgets would somehow corrupt or weaken the vision of the prolific auteur. But Miike, frankly, is Miike and always will be. The man is a force of nature and, as such, incorruptible. The increased budgets are affording him the chance to tell different types of stories in some cases or, as in this case, an old type of story with a bit more gloss, but the distinctive Miike touches are always there. And thank god for that. Far from being a major studio sell out job Crows 0 is one of Miike's most engaging and flat out entertaining pictures in years, one that proves that while you'll never take the cult out of the man he'll never let that cult limit him, either.
In a quasi-related note I was struck at several points in the film to the obvious comparisons with Toshiaki Toyoda's Blue Spring - and please come back from your self imposed exile, Toyoda-san, we miss you - including the killer soundtrack which includes what I believe to be a track from a new band featuring the lead singer of Thee Michelle Gun Elephant, though it could easily have been a TMGE track that I'm simply missing. If someone out there could confirm whether or not that's the case or shed some light on what the members of TMGE have been up to post-break up I'd be greatly appreciative.