Pic finds Miike still on his current creative roll, if not at the same inspired level as yakuza fightfest "Dragon." There's the same mixture of irony and deadly seriousness in the face-offs and mano a mano fighting, as well as a central hero who simply gets off on the physical pain of combat. But the grungy high-school setting places the pic in a much more restricted universe than "Dragon," and the virtually all-male story has little of "Dragon's" melancholy romanticism.
Suzuran Boys' High, aka School for Crows, has a rep as the toughest educational institution in town (not that we ever see the students getting any education). Thither goes beanpole punk Genji Takaya (Shun Oguri, "Sukiyaki," "Azumi") to prove to his dad, yakuza boss Hideo (Goro Kishitani), that he has the smarts to eventually take over papa's operation.
Arriving at the rundown school, Genji is mistaken for its numero uno fighter, Tamao Serizawa (Takayuki Yamada), by smalltime gangleader Ken Katagiri (Kyosuke Yabe). After Genji whips Ken & co.'s asses without breaking a sweat, Tamao realizes the school has a new pretender to his throne.
As per any Asian actioner, pic is basically a gradual progression to a final face-off between the two leads. But first, Genji has to prove himself against lower-ranked punks.
Chief among these is Izaki, who develops a mutual respect for Genji after the latter is beaten to a pulp by his men. When Izaki is thrashed by another gang, Genji almost loses sight of his main objective in his desire to avenge Izaki's beating.
Though obsessed by modern "warrior" codes and personal masochism, Miike has always tempered his portraits of yakuza with plenty of sly humor. In "Crows," it's made clear that, beneath all the alpha-male strutting and snorting, these guys are softies at heart, following rules they feel they have to abide by rather than anything else. Slyest perf comes from Kishitani (the never-say-die psycho in "Dragon") as Genji's dad, whose offhanded treatment of his son's braggadocio is one of pic's major delights.
A tentative romance springs up between Genji and young band singer Ruka (lissome Japanese-American model Meisa Kuroki, "Under the Same Moon") and, when she's kidnapped on the orders of one of Tamao's henchmen, pic starts moving towards its climactic battle.
Cross-cutting in the final reel, which has Tamao's and Genji's men going at it in the pouring rain, while Tamao's sidekick is undergoing surgery and Ken is paying a heavy price for an act of selflessness, is worth the wait.
Though film's physical universe is limited, there are enough disparate characters to fend off a sense of repetition. Individual alliances and enmities between the punks are well-drawn, their wild hairdos and rocker duds (closely modeled on Takahashi's manga) defining them clearly onscreen. Most of them don't look especially tough, but that's not the point: The exaggerated sound effects and relatively small amount of blood-letting make it clear this is hardly real life.
Production values are fine, from the dingy gray-brown color palette of d.p. Takumi Furuya ("Azumi," "Godzilla: The Final War") to Yuji Hayashida's trash-scattered, graffiti-plastered art direction. Techno-rock score, with its anthem of "Eternal Rock 'n' Roll!," underlines the boys-must-be-boys tone of the hijinks.
Camera (color), Takumi Furuya; editor, Shuichi Kakesu; music, Naoki Otsubo; art director, Yuji Hayashida; sound (Dolby Digital), Hiroshi Ishigai. Reviewed at Pusan Intl. Film Festival (A Window on Asian Cinema), Oct. 7, 2007. Running time: 129 MIN.