Monday, December 15, 2014

2014 in Shit: Crows : Explode

Crows : Explode is the third in a series. The first two -- Crows Zero and Crows Zero 2 -- were live action adaptations of a high school yakuza-adjacent fighting manga. They both fucking ruled; I watched them in preparation for the third, having never heard of them before. They were also both directed by Takashi Miike, closer to his Dead or Alive style than, say, his Ichi or Audition or Gozu styles. I don't think either of Miike's Crows ever quite achieve the brilliance of the DoA movies, but they aren't incredibly far off.

Some words on those movies, to give context on the one under consideration but also because fucking Miike is such a piece of shit and he's the best; in spite of what I just said, if there's any movie of his that the Crows films are closest to thematically I'd have to reach for Ichi the Killer. Maybe Visitor Q, although that has too broad of a scope. This is in the reading of Ichi as a movie about masculinity, which maybe (I haven't seen it in going on ten years probably) isn't immediately obvious. It's something of a copout to say, "well, really, this horror film, what it is actually about is masculinity," in part because this obscures the fact that it (no matter what it is, but especially Ichi) is much more about composing images within a developing abstract framework that produce affective responses. Which is to say that focusing on content to the exclusion of form is a way of reducing films to a set of meanings, which is itself a means of turning any individual film into a data point. Which isn't necessarily bad, you know, but kind of ruins the fun of an exercise like this.

Welcome to 2014 in Shit, in which I take myself to film school for your edification and my embarrassment.

That said, what does organize the way in which the images are presented on the screen over time in Ichi the Killer is motivated, at least in part, by the way it develops the titular character's very, uhm, fraught, relationship to masculinity, and specifically to the forms of masculinity pressed upon him by the other characters. In Ichi, these other characters play specifically on that fray in order to instrumentalize him. This is in some ways Miike's Big Theme.

What Miike's Crows movies do is allow him, once again, to play in that space. And what makes him great is that he really does play in it. There are, I suspect, few directors who are as good at engaging with the fucked up nature of masculine social formation as Miike, or who can at the very least give it so thorough a treatment through odd one-off moments or cringe-worthy comic relief characters. It helps, also, that he can direct the shit out of an action sequence and has no qualms whatsoever about, say, setting it in the pouring rain for no discernible narrative reason.

A final bit about Miike: in addition to all that, he somehow has the worst, goofiest sense of how to use special effects, and it is fucking wonderful. One of his Crows movies has a human bowling moment that is just exquisite.

Crows : Explode was directed by Toshiyaki Toyoda, whose work I gather lends him to this sort of thing despite having seen none of it. All things considered, it's a good movie; it holds together, does its own thing, builds in one important way on its predecessors, and is fun to watch. It is also, unfortunately, disappointing.

I say this as someone -- and this could be taken just as much as my having had inflated expectations going in as of my having a predisposition for generosity toward it -- who is particularly fond of the awkward, unnecessary third movie, especially when something like a change of director happens. The most ready example: I count Pulse 3, the direct to DVD conclusion of a trilogy that began with an American remake of a Japanese horror film, among my favorite films of all time, despite not loving either Pulse (the first; it's great but not amazing, though the second is) or Kairo, its source. Or, even closer to hand, the third Dead or Alive movie, which, while not a favorite period, is my favorite of the three, though that didn't switch directors.

Third movies, given the right circumstances, provide unique opportunities to explore the weirdness of a premise more fully than is generally available. Note that I'm not talking about the sort of third that is the end of a trilogy, and has been projected out from the start, although their being conceived to wrap up a film and its sequel are generally a good thing. Approaching something like "ghosts came out of the internet" or "high school kids beat the shit out of each other" with an eye toward a natural conclusion for that premise, taking into account the batshit happenings of the previous installments, is a fantastic opportunity to craft a trainwreck.

On top of that, the third gets to cherrypick from the past in a way that isn't often a feature of a cinema culture that relies heavily on treating every movie as an experience unto itself. Third parts start running into weird impasses; fans of the earliers' response to certain aspects might dissuade the director or producer from pursuing them, actors may have moved on or demand higher pay, intellectual property may have shuffled hands, sets from other films may need to be repurposed for the lower budget, and on and on. Having an established property creates a lot of interesting eventualities, and watching any third film is in some way also watching how those are addressed. It's fun.

An example, from the movie at hand; the only character who returns for a major role in Explode (from the first two Crows) is Katagiri Ken, who played a graduate of Suzuran (the fighting high school) who was a sort of bumbling, kind-hearted yakuza underling. Through the first two movies he sort of mentors Genji Takiya, the main character and son of a yakuza boss, in his quest to take over Suzuran (via, obviously, fighting), even though Katagiri failed miserably in his attempts there. Katagiri goes from a bumbling sidekick to a fleshed out side character who completes his arc over the course of the two films. Of all the secondary characters in the movies, his might have been the best: self-contained, fully realized, and definitively ended. For whatever production reason, though, he was brought back, even though the only reason he made sense as a part of this story (his relationship with Genji Takiya) was gone.

In some ways, the scenes with Katagiri are the best in the movie; they have at least some of that mixture of deference with relentless disregard for established storytelling practices that make the thirds such a compelling thing to watch. In the same way, of course, his presence never amounts to much more than as an attempt at dressed up fanservice. Which gets, I suppose, to the heart of the disappointment; Katagiri's return couldn't possibly be seen as anything but fanservice, and yet the movie never commits fully to either his wholesale integration into his new role or the kind of joyous embrace of his displacement that it seems perfectly capable of affording.

This isn't the aforementioned good thing that Crows : Explode does to build on its predecessors. More on that soon.

The reason I ran through Miike's work, other than that his work is important to me and that he directed the first two installments of the franchise, is to talk about (or at least around) how it is that Crows : Explode does its own thing. For as much hemming as I did, it seems hard not to read a movie with this premise as a commentary on masculinity, at least to some degree. Toyoda's film, for better or worse, does engage with this but opts not to centralize it. In the same way that its fight sequences, which I dug, were nowhere near as important (or, so, as central) as the ones in Miike's movies, it seems to want to take a much more conventional approach to dealing with its overarching abstractions. Which is to say, it focuses on its characters, and the themes are just kind of a thing you infer. I find that boring, honestly, but I watch movies as poorly as I do everything else, so. What this means is that the characters in Explode are much more rounded than the characters in the other two (with the possible exception of Katagiri Ken, which I am now realizing might make for an interesting argument on the terms of his inclusion); but to deploy the jargon against itself, (well) rounded is just another way of saying that they lack any edges. So they're folks, woohoo.

To round this whole thing off; the one important way in which Explode builds on Zero and Zero 2. Briefly in, I believe, the introductory scenes at Suzuran, as the new class is having their first fight of the year, a new social dynamic is introduced. The first day is now host to a ritualized "first fight" type thing, a bit of an open call for the student closest to taking over the top to tangle with whoever (although it very much seems like a number one contender sort of deal). As the movie goes on, this is hinted at more broadly; there are official rankings maintained by what must be some sort of third party group, that sort of thing. Basically, in the month since Takiya vacated the throne, a sort of Vegas atmosphere has developed, or a boxing/MMA contendership structure, or something.

There are a couple reasons this ruled, although, to quickly get it out of the way: it, also, is not utilized to nearly the level I would've liked, and so was also a bit of a disappointment. That aside; the thing about Suzuran, the setting of the movies, is that, despite being nominally a high school, there isn't a single scene (that I can recall at least, if there is the point still stands) in which it is so much as intimated that there is anything resembling schooling happening there. No teachers are shown, no principal; these kids just show up, hang out, and kick the shit out of each other. The most straightforward (read: paranoid) reading of this is as indicative of the films as allegorical; thus the weird rant about masculinity above. It isn't too hard to figure out how forcing kids into arbitrary, pointless competition with their peers maps onto masculine identity formation, I don't think. The other reading that suggests itself is basically the same argument, except from a psychological perspectives; the camera shows us high school as experienced rather than as lived sort of thing. The places both of those arguments would take you might well be interesting, but for my purposes here we'll treat them as tools to be used rather than propositions to be explored.

To expand that binary slightly; if the goal were classification, then Miike's films in the series would fall on the allegorical side of the divider, and Toyoda's on the psychological. This is evident throughout the films as a whole by watching for both tone and emphasis, but if there is one deciding factor it would be Toyoda's inclusion of the rankings.

Per good deconstructionist practice, though, an issue must be brought to bear; that ranking system feels, more than almost any other part of Crows : Explode, like a natural consequence of the direction the film had to take after Crows Zero 2. And this is not, I very strongly suspect, because the well had run dry. As much as I respect Miike, I doubt even he could exhaust the high school as petri dish for masculine social identity metaphor.

That sense of being an extension is what might be the second of the "couple." Thus the weird rant about third films in a series above. For this one I don't have a lot to say, other than that I really appreciated that, in at least one way, Crows : Explode lived up to the arbitrary conditions for valorization my dumbass set.

And a slight postscript. The sets for Crows : Explode (and all of the Crows films, really) are fucking phenomenal. The school, the bar, the docks where Katagiri works and everything else both look fantastic and play into the drama and action wonderfully. Maybe at some point I will end up writing more about that. This format does have restrictions, though, and a big one is memory (with access as a correlate). So.

Blog Archive