Although Crows Zero is not Takashi Miike's most commercial piece of cinema (that award goes to his 2003 film, One Missed Call), the film certainly is one of his most romantic, sentimental, and unabashedly escapist films that I've seen from his diverse filmography. Crows Zero is also as fiercely entertaining as it is violent; and coming from one of cinema's truest iconoclasts, it is very traditional.
Genji Takaya (Shun Oguri) is the new student at Suzuran all-boys high school, a.k.a. "The School of Crows," the toughest high school in the nation. Genji willingly transfered: his father, an alumnus, is a local yakuza boss. If Genji becomes the "King of Suzuran," then his father will allow him to succeed him as the syndicate's head. The current king at Suzuran is Tamao Serizawa (Takayuki Yamada) and he's not having much trouble staying on top. In fact, Serizawa's beating up the local yakuza, who come hunting for him one day at school. This group of yakuza is led by stooge, Ken (Kyôsuke Yabe), also a Suzuran dropout, but Ken gets sent away by his brothers. Good thing, since Genji was in the mood to beat them up himself. Ken later runs down Genji, thinking that he's Serizawa, but the two do not fight but bond: Genji doesn't know how to be top guy at school but Ken has a few ideas to help him.
When I was a teenager, I probably would have loved Crows Zero. The film really captures the sense of male youth which so desires peer acceptance, being cool, holding the heart of the prettiest girl, and being a total badass. Ken tells Genji that being number one will take more than beating Serizawa: Genji's going to have to win over the hearts of the students in the school.
Genji begins by storming into a homeroom classroom and calling out the top guy, Chuta (Suzunosuke) and quickly beating him down, while as quickly drawing his notebook to quote his pre-scripted diplomatic lines to encourage Chuta and his group to follow him. Class C, a smaller band of poorer and more outcast students, is led by Makise (Tsutomu Takahashi), who's dirty, scarred, and pretty tough. Makise, beyond his looks, has a lot of trouble with the ladies; and Genji, Ken, and Chuta cook up a scheme to get Makise a date. The date goes far from well, but at the end of the evening, Makise agrees with his crew to follow Genji, since the outcast is so touched another would go to such lengths to help him. Finally, there's good-looking, sharp, and tough fighter, Izaki (Sosuke Takaoka), who's biding his time for the right opportunity to fight Serizawa. Izaki sees Genji as a threat to his quest to be number one, so Izaki and his boys stage a fight with Genji. Clearly outnumbered, Genji takes a severe beating, yet to Izaki's admiration, he keeps getting up and willing to fight, despite his body being able to. Genji creates his faction, but he gains something much more, a true group of friends who care for each other. Genji even gets the chance to rescue the hottest R & B singer in his area, Ruka (Meisa Kuroki), after she's kidnapped by a rival gang. Ruka and other female characters don't get much screen time in Crows Zero: this film's about fraternal love.
The best character is Ken. As Ken sits bloody in an alleyway, after taking another beating, a police officer comes up and tosses him his jacket. "You were an average student at Suzuran. And a dropout. Now, you're an average yakuza." Ken's vicarious living through Genji is the heart of the theme of Crows Zero. As Ken watches Genji and his friends having a good time at school, the look on Ken's face is jealousy. The ideal life back in school was when life was worth living. Ken has no friends or earns any respect in the yakuza. Adult life for Ken is a struggle, especially in the underworld, where he's often asked to some horrific things. Miike's film ignores the reality of modern children, in Japan or really anywhere: the younger generations have it harder than their previous ones. Competition in the adult world has forced the youth to give up a lot of its youthful amenities. Today's high school education is a true job, if one wants to be successful as an adult. The teachers are briefly glimpsed in Crows Zero and shown as completely ineffectual. Not one class of learning is shown nor is a satchel shown slung on a student's shoulder. The true focus is the kinship of youth. Even Serizawa is not the villain or monster he's painted out to be: most of his scenes are shown with his best friend, Tokio (Kenta Kiritani), who he loves very deeply. Serizawa's motivation to stay number one is rooted in his love for his friend, quite possibly his only motivation.
Although there is more than one brawl in Crows Zero, Miike saves his most intense scenes for the final confrontation, which occupies about thirty minutes of the approximately two-hour film. Beautifully shot in the rain, the scenes are shot kinetically with fast and brutal punches and kicks while the water showers everything. The fights truly are brawls: none of the fights feel contrived or choreographed: the participants throughout fight with emotion, and it shows. The blows look brutal and sound that way and are extremely realistic and credible. Finally, save the clownish characters, just about every character in Crows Zero takes the time to pose for the camera and look as cool as possible. The students at Suzuran look like real-life manga characters with outlandish hair, punk costumes, and each with his unique affectation. When one of the boys is smoking a cigarette, it's cinematic smoking: dangling from his mouth, against the backdrop of the sun, smoke floating in the air. These are the boys that each of us wish we could be or wish that we were once like.
Takashi Miike would follow Crows Zero with a sequel in 2009. For two hours, Crows Zero paints a portrait of idyllic youth on a canvas of blood. The iconoclast and the court jester of cinema does the most shocking: Miike goes completely commercial and traditional and succeeds. Mightily.