What is it with women and bad boys on motorcycles — including college boys with pretensions to being bad? A conundrum of my youth. Yes, I understood the appeal of a Marlon Brando or James Dean with a big thrumming machine between his legs, but why did the women I knew prefer riding on a Honda with a spotty-faced dork to sharing existential insights with me? I should, I realize now, have bought a Honda, even the 50cc variety.
Based on a manga by Taku Tsumugi serialized in girls’ magazine “Bessatsu Margaret” in 1986 and ’87, Takahiro Miki’s “Hot Road” gives the same basic answers to this review’s opening question found in “The Wild One” and “Rebel Without a Cause” (though Dean’s preferred mode of transport in that film is a fast car, not a bike). That is, the guy at the center of the drama, Hiroshi Haruyama (Hiromi Tosaka), is hot-looking and a bit of an outlaw, but less of a punk than his fellow members of the Nights — a gang that cruises the roads of Shonan Beach, near Tokyo, in the bubble-era 1980s.
In fact, Haruyama is a sensitive, supportive type, as the 14-year-old Kazuki (Rena Nonen) discovers — which raises the question of what this tenderly raised middle-class teenage girl is doing with a bunch of bikers, notorious in those days for blasting solid citizens awake from their slumber with roaring engines and blaring horns? The answer, again, is another genre standard. Her dad died young, leaving behind not even a photograph, at least not one that Kazuki’s self-involved mom (Yoshino Kimura) cared to preserve. She would, in fact, rather spend time with her longtime lover (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) than Kazuki, whom she seems to regret birthing and regards as a living symbol of a failed marriage.
That is Kazuki’s perception, and she rebels against this parental indifference in the usual ways: petty shoplifting, neglecting her studies and staying out all hours with the wrong friends. These paths all lead to Shonan, that refuge of rebels since the days of ’50s heartthrob Yujiro Ishihara, which is where the Nights assemble and where Haruyama works at a gas station. And there Kazuki, with less-than-trustworthy pals, ends up one fateful night.
The ensuing action is presented as a extended flashback, with Kazuki narrating. Similar to the manga — which its then-teenage creator drew with wispy, delicate lines, depicting Haruyama as a doe-eyed and curly-haired fantasy object — “Hot Road” plays like Kazuki’s girlish dream of love, remembered in soft-focus repose.
Director Miki, a romantic drama specialist whose credits include “Hidamari No Kanojo (Girl in the Sunny Place)” from 2013 and the two-part 2012 film “Bokura ga Ita (We Were There),” may know his audience — girls about the same age as Kazuki — but his treatment of the biker scenes lacks anything resembling action and tension.
True, the Nights have a cool-headed, fearless leader in Toru (Ryohei Suzuki) and Haruyama has a loyal pal in the tough half-Japanese gang member Richard (Motoki Ochiai), but guys who see “Hot Road” under the impression that it is a biker movie will feel snookered, to say the least. (Those dragooned by their dates may feel less let down.)
A glance at the film’s poster, featuring a determined-looking Nonen, should have set them straight. The star of the hit NHK drama “Amachan,” Nonen, at 20, still has a childlike quality that makes her casting as a 14-year-old less of a stretch. In a real biker milieu — or even the fictional ones created by Mitsuo Yanagimachi, Sogo (now Gakuryu) Ishii and others during the genre’s ’60s and ’70s peak — Nonen’s Kazuki would stand out like a lost puppy on a busy expressway.
At the same time, she seethes with an anger that can burst forth with a startling force (especially to its targets). Big innocent eyes notwithstanding, this puppy has a bite as well as a bark.
But Kazuki also has a lot of growing up to do, and in the end the film is more about her coming of age — with the frank-talking Haruyama as a catalyst — than the dramatics of its girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy plot. This is all well and good, though its view of the Nights as latter-day knights, as least from the perspective of one damsel in distress, is removed from any known reality outside of Mangaland.
Or maybe I was soured on the bikers-as-heroes idea by the biker-gang horns and engines that woke me up so many times back in the bubble days I wanted to bounce bricks off their owners’ curly-haired skulls. Ah, memories …
Fun fact: The fictional Nights motorcycle gang in “Hot Road” had 2,000 members nationwide at its peak, but at the time of the film’s story this number has dwindled to 500. The leader traditionally rides a Dream CB400 Four, a real bike Honda began selling in 1974.