Thursday, October 1, 2015

Crazy Thunder Road: A Critical Review with Spoilers

The spoilers start pretty much immediately.

My favourite poster for the film, though I don't exactly think it accurately portrays it's contents.
Any time someone mentions the words “Japanese”, “bikers”, “1980’s”, “Japan”, “movie”, and “Sogo Ishii” in the same sentence I get excited and have to watch whatever it is they’re talking about. Indeed, I tried my hardest to watch this film, but alas it’s one of those rare pieces that no one, not even those rapidly disappearing fabulous hipster/niche video stores seems to have. In any case I finally got my hands on it and with subtitles to boot and it was pretty good.

Sogo Ishii’s Crazy Thunder Road (CTR) seems pretty crazy. On the surface it’s about a bike gang in Japan in the “near future” (circa 1980), which breaks up because its boss wants to settle down with his best girl. The gang splinters into two factions. There’s a bunch of other bike gangs which make a union/confederacy of bike gangs and one of the two factions doesn’t like the union/confederacy so they try to fight everyone. But then these militant ultra-nationalists dressed like imperial army soldiers come and try to teach the upstart faction the values of being “real” Japanese manly men and self-control and all that. And then the boss of the faction becomes a loose-cannon and gets all this cool armor and stuff and fights everyone with guns and things. The battle leaves him seemingly mortally wounded and he rides off into the sunset on his bike to face an unknown future (I still don’t think I “spoiled” this movie; don’t you just want to see it more now?)

Now, when I watch films that have ridiculous story-lines and characters, yet reference numerous social issues, angst, frustration and politics like CTR I tend to rather quickly assume it’s meant to be an allegory for something rather than merely an insane foray into absurdity. I learned in school that you can and often should read into everything (within reason, I mean there is only so much time in the day) because just about any piece of material culture will have significant traces of the environment in which it was produced — it’s how things become “of the time” so to speak (like mullets and terrible mustaches became of the mid 1980’s in North America).

Certainly CTR works on its own as an amusing and action filled bit of bike-gang themed malarkey from Japan, but even Japanese malarkey comes from somewhere. I think the key to understanding this movie is to take a look at what was happening in Japan between the late 1970’s early 80’s as that’s when the film was produced and eventually released.

The league/union/conglomerate of bike gangs holding one of Jin's team hostage.
In 1976 Japan signed a friendship agreement with Australia. Okay. . .  

In 1977 Megumi Yakota was kidnapped by North Korea and there was a U.S. military plane crash in Yokohama. Furthermore, the Fukuda doctrine, named after former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), became a big part of Japanese foreign policy. It essentially stated that Japan would never become a military power and that they would do their best to get along with rest of Asia, all peachy-like. I think we’re getting somewhere here. . .

In 1978 Japan signed a treaty of “peace and friendship” with China which is very significant because if you know anything about modern Japanese history, you’ll know Japan did some pretty nasty things in China before and during WWII (and that’s putting it lightly — like saying the holocaust was “pretty awful”). There was also a fairly devastating earthquake.

1979 was a bit more eventful in the realm of politics. There was a general election and Fukuda’s successor was chosen as the LDP was once again voted in and Masayoshi Ohira took office marking the ninth consecutive win for the LDP in a span of twenty years. In other news, the fifth G7 summit was held in Tokyo and mysteriously a Boeing 707 jet disappeared over Japanese waters. In 1980 Sogo Ishii released Crazy Thunder Road.

Jin with a "bag of drugs" being recruited by the nationalists.
What was the point of all those seemingly random bits of history? Well if we combine some of these and mix them together with a pinch of historical context and a nominal dose of critical inquiry we can tell that Japan seemed to be wrestling with their militant past, perhaps trying to make amends with the countries they had tried to colonize prior to the war. One can imagine as well that by 1980 there were still a fairly large number of veterans who had fought in or people who had at least lived through WWII who would have grown up in a very different Japan than the youth of the liberally dominated (as far as politics were concerned) 70’s and 80’s. It was also likely this generation that made up the majority of the politicians at that time. Another tidbit was that in the 70’s and 80’s Japanese cultural commentators and academics were doing their utmost to promote Japanese culture locally and abroad through a body of literature often called nihonjinron (which translates roughly to “theories about the Japanese”). These works boasted a number of sub-genres and covered various topics as history, culture — both traditional and contemporary, the arts — visual, performant etc., environmentalism and civics to, just to name a few.

Of course we also can’t forget that the 70’s and 80’s saw unprecedented growth in the Japanese economy, the effects of which can even be felt in the pop-culture of the United States, manifested in such notable movies as Bladerunner and Diehard.

One can infer from the above bits of history that what Japan was really wrestling with at this point in time was most likely national identity. It had gone from being the “modern” colonial force in Asia, to war-torn poverty and after years of development, was able to once more sit at the “leaders of international business” table. Japan was sitting pretty. However, in order to attract foreign investors, tourism, and all that great stuff, Japanese policymakers had to craft a new identity — one that was far removed from the fascist, militant and xenophobic Japanese empire leading up to and during the war-years. What took place then was a struggle to both come to terms with the past and/or bury it, which many individuals attempted to do in various creative ways (nihonjinron was one of those ways). I believe it is this struggle of identity that Crazy Thunder Road is attempting to represent. However, with this film, Sogo Ishii is not so much advocating one identity over the other, but instead illustrating the plight of the Japanese subject caught in between.

Jin and his boys being trained up.
The main character Jin, played by Tatsuo Yamada is a discontented youth. He is frustrated with his boss’s decision to disband his gang for what many would describe as a more stable and benign life with his girlfriend — soon to be wife. His boss wishes to settle down for a life that is generally considered to be ideal, safe, and even smart. Jin’s boss explains to his former gang that other bike gangs in the area are coming together to form a league of sorts and that if they wish to continue being bikers, they should join up. However, Jin sees this as a cowardly act and instead opts to take the other members of the gang who share his views and make an independent splinter group. This group carries on wreaking havoc on other bike gangs until they eventually come up against “the league” and at that point it’s three against . . . well a lot.

Going out on a limb you could say that “the league” could represent “modern liberal Japan” or at least the “new” identity of it. A place where people are expected to act as individuals within a larger communal framework, which might’ve been thought to be a stark contrast from the unity and uniformity of the imperial age. The bike gangs in the league are recognized as belonging to specific gangs yet they essentially operate as a conglomerate (there could be a commentary on Japanese business culture in there too!). Unsurprisingly Jin and his friends are utterly defeated by the league but right when it looks like they won’t come out alive these ultranationalists, who had previously approached Jin’s gang to form a truce, show up and volunteer to take the remaining three members of Jin’s gang under their wing to train them up as “proper Japanese men”, military style.

Jin and nationalists get harassed by bikers as they hand out nationalistic flyers.
At this point the bike gang story gets momentarily derailed as Jin and his compatriots are shown attending indoctrination classes, performing military drills complete with uniforms and rifles reminiscent of the imperial army and handing out fliers and yelling nationalist slogans on street corners to passers-by (people still do this in parts of Japan today). This would appear to reference the imperial/militant identity of the past. The militants believe that Japan’s youth have become weak and wayward and the only way to get them “back on track” is fierce discipline and national loyalty through military-style training.

Essentially the duality is a liberally regulated subjectivity vs. a militant nationalist uniformity and Jin and his entourage are stuck in the middle — perhaps representing the modern Japanese subject caught between these two disparate, yet still recognizably “Japanese” identities. Furthermore, the leader of the nationalists ends up having a homosexual relationship with the youngest of Jin’s gang. A comment on the masculine-gendered identity of nationalism and militarism? Certainly seems plausible. In fact gender is a rather interesting element of this film as there is really only one woman in the main cast — the former boss’s wife, who eventually leaves him because, by settling down, he has become vapid and bereft of that motorcycle gangster fire and rebelliousness which attracted her to him in the first place. I feel like there’s some subtext here as well that could be sussed out. At any rate, because of the lack of female presence the story comes across as a kind foolish battle of machismo in which just about everyone loses.

By the end of the film Jin opts to rebel against both groups, taking arms with the help of a strange elderly mechanic and a young child and turns the urban/industrial sprawl, so often framed in the film, into a battle zone. By the end of the film he is mortally wounded, yet has enough strength to climb onto his bike and drive away to whatever future awaits him. By this he manages to keep his own identity intact, and in fact creates a new one. Jin’s driving off into the wilderness could be seen as the emergence of a new subjectivity — one that does not identify with the fascist past nor the purportedly liberal present.

In the end Jin decides to fight everyone with only the help of a bazooka wielding mechanic and a dynamite wielding kid.
Whether or not this was Sogo Ishii’s (A.K.A Gakuryu Ishii’s) intent with his film is rather difficult to discern without speaking to him directly, however, he’s always been something of a rebel in Japanese film and I feel like it goes without saying that his films are open to interpretation and in fact, beg to be interpreted (though I suppose the same could be said about any film). Even if the interpretation I have made here is not exactly what was intended, the socio-political environment in which this film was made is extremely noticeable and must be considered in any such interpretation. What I can say with any certainty that this is commentary. Pretty fun commentary too.

Also, even if you don’t care about all that stuff (you should though), it’s still an interesting film and I think considering all this stuff while watching it just makes it even better. In any case, Crazy Thunder Road is a great absurd gangster flick as well as a wild social commentary of Japan in the 1980’s and certainly worth your time if you are at all interested in Japan. The cinematography is gritty and amateurish with lots of shaky cam and close-ups sometimes giving it a documentary feel. The action is. . . frustrating as well — bullets are fired but often miss, punches are thrown wildly and sporadically but do not make obvious or satisfactory contact. Perhaps this too was intended. The music is also great — featuring vintage Japanese rock. 

Jin rides off into the proverbial sunset.
In any case, you don’t have to be an East Asian Studies specialist like me to enjoy this film. But chances are if you’ve gotten to this point in this post, you’ve already seen it. Anyway, I hope this was interesting for you.  


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