For many, the jump that director Takashi Miike made from excessively violent cult classics, to huge budget Japanese blockbusters, is a formidable and incomprehensible one. But perhaps his “gateway” movie, which brought him from Ichi the Killer, to 13 Assassins, was Crows Zero, a series of films based on the manga by Hiroshi Takahashi.
Based at a boys’ school called Suzuran High School, the film follows factions of students who fight for supremacy and the accolade of being the strongest in the school. Suzuran is officially the most violent and underachieving school in the country, and its pupils are constantly at each other’s throats to show their worth.
At the outset, Tamao Serizawa (Takayuki Yamada) is the current kingpin at the school; an odd and eccentric fighter who is both fearless and ruthless. Serizawa’s reign however, is threatened with the arrival of the new kid in town, Genji Takiya (Shun Oguri). Neither one of the characters are portrayed as mere brutes, and they each have their own reason for fighting and refusing to back down.
We meet Genji in police custody, along with a band of misfits; a low-ranking Yakuza, Ken Katagiri (Kyosuke Yabe), a puppy drowning introvert, Kenichi Endo (Joji Yazaki), and the misunderstood Luca Aizawa (Meisa Kuroki), whose father accuses her of being a whore for wearing too much makeup. The cracks in Genji’s cool demeanor appear early on, as his clueless parents bicker in front of him, to such a degree, the intuitive detective pulls him aside, so that he can pummel a table to help vent his frustration.
These four social outcasts feed off of each other in mutually beneficial relationships; Katagiri a stark reminder of the lifestyle that may await them after school and Endo being the personification of a confused yet powerful person driven to the sidelines of society. Luca offers up the essential love interest, so that the movie isn’t exclusively about punching people in the face…although that is still the narrative’s main drive.
No matter how complicated these characters may be however, they all take a backseat to the action in the film; there are constant fistfights, brawls and rearranging of troops, as Genji slowly builds up a following as strong as Tamao’s.
The fight sequences are both stylish and reasonably realistic, as injuries have real consequence in the film. For some, it may seem a shame that Miike was so loyal to the manga, as odd CGI moments of goons being knocked down like bowling pins really clash with the style of the movie.
The fight scene to end it all however is awesome, as the two factions face off in the rain, everyone standing beneath a black umbrella, except the eccentric Tamao, who squats beneath a tattered and torn plastic umbrella, smirking at Genji before charging forward. At this point in the movie, there is still no clear good-guy or bad-guy, and you may have conflicting interests as the two face off against each other.