Japan has its share of teenage punks, but compared with their scarier counterparts in the United States, they are rather tame. Instead of spraying enemies and strangers with automatic weapons, they settle their disputes with methods usually far less lethal, from fists to head butts.
Japanese pop-culture portrayals of punks, from manga to trading cards, may stress their coolness, but there is also often a leavening of humor that undercuts the ultra macho image these guys are trying to project.
One example is the Hiroshi Takahashi comic “Crows,” which ran for eight years from 1981 in Shonen Champion magazine and has sold 42 million copies in paperback editions. The Takashi Miike film “Crows Zero,” based on the manga, grossed ¥2.5 billion in 2007, becoming the prolific Miike’s biggest-ever hit.
The heroes are students at Suzuran High School, where gangs rule the graffiti-covered halls. The plot revolves around the attempt of Genji Takiya (Shun Oguri), the quick-fisted son of a Suzuran alum and current gang boss, to unite all the school’s gangs under his leadership, which no one has ever done before.
He and his allies defeat the school’s most powerful gang, led by the long-haired Tamao Serizawa (Takayuki Yamada), but in a mano-a-mano contest, Genji falls to Linderman (Motoki Fukami), a curly-haired loner giant who is the school’s strongest fighter. “Crows Zero” has its moments of comic relief, but many more scenes of all-in brawling, strobed like the battle scenes in “Saving Private Ryan” and accompanied by a hard-rock score.
In the sequel, “Crows Zero II,” again directed by Miike, the boys from Suzuran are back, but this time they have a new rival, the white-uniformed students from another institution of higher punkery, Kosen High School. The Kosen punks are after a Suzuran alum, the lanky Kawanishi (Shinnosuke Abe), who fatally knifed a Kosen leader in a dust-up two years earlier. Released from a reformatory, Kawanishi finds a Kosen horde waiting for him and narrowly escapes a lynching by fleeing to the protection of his Suzuran juniors.
Frustrated in their desire to pound Kawanishi, the Kosen punks plot to get revenge under the leadership of the fiery, goateed Taiga Narumi (Nobuaki Kaeko). One of his most fearsome warriors is Ryo Urushibara (Go Ayano), a tall, pale-faced, delicately featured boy who looks like Michael Jackson’s Japanese cousin, but fights like Bruce Lee. Another is Tatsuya Bito (Haruma Miura), the blond-haired younger brother of the fallen Kosen leader, who is cool as ice and seriously out for pay back.
Meanwhile, the internecine fightin’ and feudin’ continue as usual at Suzuran, until Kosen launches a tightly coordinated attack that leaves the disorganized Suzuran opposition in small bloody heaps around the city. Have the Suzuran “crows” — a self-chosen nickname that advertises their outcast status — finally met their match? Or will they finally unite under the old Hell’s Angels motto: “All for one and all on one?”
As in the first film, the brawls are nearly nonstop, though the strobing has been toned down and the violence amped up. The action is, accordingly, more realistic, right down to the gory-looking makeup and bone-crunching sound effects. Also, the group battle scenes, with hundreds of punks whaling on each other, have a scale and impact reminiscent of the gaudier clashes in “Braveheart,” though no one gets their head lopped off with a sword.
The many characters and subplots, including Genji’s tempestuous romance with a punk-club singer (Meisa Kuroki) and his troubled relationship with his gang-boss dad (Goro Kishitani), may be hard to keep up with unless you have seen the first film. Like many screen adaptations of long-running manga series, “Crows Zero II” crams in too much in trying to please the manga’s legion of fans.
That said, Miike directs with an energy, velocity and cheeky bravado that are pure punk. He also understands why his Suzuran toughs fight as easily as they breathe — it’s not just a release for their raging hormones, but a way of being with their friends and telling the world they exist. Even with the bashed heads, they are alive in a way their better socialized contemporaries, the video-game warriors included, will never understand.