In Japanese films, high-school classrooms are often portrayed as rowdy environments where kids can talk, tease, flirt and fight, without any visible adult supervision. But when the teacher walks through the door the fun — if that’s what it is — usually ends.
There is however another genre of Japanese high-school films set in schools populated entirely by punks, bikers and other anti-social types. Teachers are conspicuous by their absence or utter insignificance. Kids roam the graffiti-covered halls like Vandals and Goths in a pillaged Roman city, intent only on struggles for power and status. Fighting, either punk-on-punk or gang-on-gang, is the main extracurricular activity.
The apotheosis of this subgenre was reached with Takashi Miike’s “Crows Zero” (2007) and “Crows Zero II” (2009), hit films based on Hiroshi Takahashi’s “Crows” manga series from the 1990s. Made with Miike’s characteristic mix of extreme violence and black humor, and cast with popular ikemen (pretty boy) actors, the films were hits with both the manga’s male fans and women who found whole crazed spectacle kakkoii (cool).
Five years on comes the third installment in the series, “Crows Explode,” with a nearly entirely different cast and a new director, Toshiaki Toyoda, whose 2001 “Aoi Haru (Blue Spring)” helped birth the current spate of what might be called “school of punk” films.
“Crows Explode” has much in common with the two previous films. Once again the setting is the all-boys Suzuran High, where the “Crows” — the self-chosen moniker for the student body — hang out and plot the destruction of their rivals. And once again the story revolves around the eternal battle to be Numero Uno, be it in the school, the neighborhood or the known punk world.
In contrast to Miike, who highlighted the absurdity of his characters’ macho posturing, Toyoda takes the manga-esque material relatively seriously and films the principals’ emotional eruptions relatively realistically.
This will come as no surprise to fans of “Blue Spring” and other Toyoda films, with their real-world authenticity beneath the surreal stylistics. At the same time, the flamboyant artiness of Toyoda’s recent work, including the 2012 misfire “I’m Flash!,” has been replaced by grayer shades and grittier imagery.
The story begins one month after the action of “Crows Zero II” ends. Now that Suzuran’s previous primus inter pares, Genji Takiya (Shun Oguri) and Tamao Serizawa (Takayuki Yamada), have graduated, the top positions are open.
Competing for them are the glowering Toru Gora (Yuya Yagira), the best fighter in the school, and the spiky-haired Tetsuji Takagi (Kenzo), ranked number two. Golden-haired first-year student, Ryohei Kagami (Taichi Saotome) — with a gang boss dad, quick fists and bad attitude — is also a contender.
The lone wolf is Kazeo Kaburagi (Masahiro Higashide), a tall, rangy third-year transfer student, who quickly establishes himself as a fearless fighter, though he is uninterested in the power struggles swirling around him.
But this wolf can’t remain in his lair forever and it soon becomes obvious that Kaburagi and Kagami are heading for a showdown. Much else has to transpire first, however, including a looming war with a rival school and its top fighter — the grotesquely scarred Hiroki Shibata (Takanori Iwata).
In contrast to Miike’s crazy brio, with wild punks charging each other like blue-painted warriors in “Braveheart,” Toyoda stages his fight scenes with marginally more realism, as well as a wearisome repetitiveness.
Also, like so many commercial films based on long-running manga, “Crows Explode” crams in as many characters from the original as possible, such as the excitable Suzuran alumnus Ken Katagiri (Kyosuke Yabe) and the silent hooded giant Lindaman (Motoki Fukami). As well liked as they are by fans, the subplots involving them at times contribute more distracting static than narrative depth, while their back stories remain sketchy to non-fans, especially those who missed seeing Miike’s films.
But if you view all three in quick succession you may, like me, feel punked out. After seeing too many fists slamming into too many faces for reasons only testosterone-charged delinquents find compelling, I’m calling time-out on the whole genre. Where did I put that copy of “Little Women?”