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Brief introduction to Truck Yarou

October 30, 2009

One of Toei’s most succefull cash cows in the 1970’s was the Truck Yarou series. This 10 film series remains relatively unknown outside Japan, but it just may be director Norifumi Suzuki’s most remarkable work. Suzuki’s career could be divided into three parts. Western audiences are familiar with the middle part, the early 1970’s pinky violence movies. However, already before that Suzuki was an important yakuza film screenwriter and ditrector, being involved with a large number of ninkyo yakuza productions such as the Red Peony Gambler movies, of which Suzuki directed one and wrote seven. Suzuki became an official box office champion in the late 70’s with his mainstream friendly Truck Yarou films, which form the core of this final third of his career.

Truck Yarou stars Bunta Sugawara (Momojiro aka First Star) and Kinya Aikawa (Jonathan) as two truck drivers traveling across the country and making deliveries. Momojiro is an eternal bachelor, usually falling in love in every film, but never settling down. Jonathan is the opposite; he has a wife and too many kids. He can never tell them appart or remember their names. Both men tend to have problems with authorities, especially Jonathan who used to be a policeman. The authority issue is a regular theme in Suzuki’s movies. Most of his post yakuza-era films make fun of hypocrite teachers, policemen, priests, nuns etc.

The series features a terrific mix of low brow comedy, emotional drama, and action. Tearful family reunions (the supporting characters often turn out to be each other’s long lost sisters / brothers / daughters) walk in hand to hand with climatic car chases and regularly make way for naughty gags and female nudity. Suzuki’s exploitation preferences are sometimes visible, but always filtered through a mainstream lens. The Truck Yarou films are enjoyable, high energy movies for big crowds. Probably most surprising is that the mixture really works and even the drama parts are strong, rarely hurt by the surrounding comedy bits. One can also find fun references to timely events and movies. For example in the beginning of the seventh movie Momojiro dreams of his truck turning into a space ship. Yes, this movie was indeed released briefly after the Japanese opening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Stars Wars.

While all 10 movies are good, most of them are excellent. The earlier films tend to be a bit more drama heavy and the best action scenes are seen in the later installments. One theme that is repeated in most films is festivals. Since the storylines takes the characters around Japan, Suzuki is given a good excuse to present local festivals and feast with beautiful landscapes. The cinematography and music are good throughout the series. The theme song is sung by Sugawara and Aikawa. It’s a great song and after just a few films becomes an unseparable part of the series. You’ll notice it at the latest in the 8th film where the song is not included, immediately hurting the viewing experience.

More or less all of the films share the same structure. There’s a delivery task, rival trucker, love interest for Momojiro, and a big finale where enemies usually become friends and help each other to make the final delivery while the police force throws everything they’ve got to stop the truck bastards. Some of the action scenes feature a bit of stock footage as Toei couldn’t afford to trash so many police cars. Scenes like restaurant fights and Momojiro’s visists to bathhouse (always bringing the girls some gifts related to his current delivery mission) appear in almost every film. A cynical viewer could say that if you’ve seen one or two Truck Yarou films you’ve seen them all. But these films are not made for cynical viewers. It is a part of the concept to always throw our beloved characters into somewhat similar but slightly modified situations.

One of series’s main attractions is the dekotora vehicles. The term is an abbreviation of Decoration Truck. In the 1970’s it became popular among lonely Japanese truck drivers to decorate their vehicles with wild artwork, exterior parts and neon lights. It was in interesting deviation of the traditional Japanese work harmony, and a way to express oneself. There trucks were gorgeous to look at especially at night time. The Truck Yarou series played important part in popularizing the phenomena in all of Japan. During the series’ course we get to see various different artworks and decorations on the main characters’ trucks. Some of the supporting characters would also drive very distinctive and memorable vehicles.

There’s a load of famous actors appearing in the series. The better you know Toei movies, the more faces you’ll be able to recognize. Even if you’re not a Japanese cinema aficionado, you’ll surely recognize some superstars like Sonny Chiba (in the 5th film) and Tomisaburo Wakayama (in the 6th film) playing rival truckers. Chiba’s role especially is memorable. He plays the leader of the Jaws gang (the trucks are numbered Jaws I, Jaws II, Jaws III etc.). Chiba’s fight scene with Sugawara is a classic comedy piece on both stars’ career. Other famous actors appearing in the films include Junko Natsu, Downtown Boogie Woogie Band (both in the 1st film), Tatsuo Umemiya (2nd film), Mieko Harada (7th film), and singer Sayuri Ishikawa (10th film), just to mention a few.

The successful series ran from 1975 to 1979, with two films being released every year. Apart from the finl film they were all Toei Top 10 box office hits in their release year. Director Suzuki still found time for other projects as well. Most interestingly, in his depraved 1979 exploitation film Beautiful Girl Hunter Suzuki made a direct reference to the Truck Yarou series. It was quite surprising to see two such different type of movies meet, even if it was just for one scene. Perhaps this connection will remind people of the versatility of both tough guy Sugawara and ”exploitation director” Suzuki. Indeed, most Western viewers who only know Sugawara from Kinji Fukasaku’s violent yakuza films will be very surprised to see him do some very silly physical comedy in the Truck Yarou films.

Films in the series:
Truck Yarou: Goiken muyou (トラック野郎 御意見無用 ) (1975)
Truck Yarou: Bakusou ichiban-boshi (トラック野郎 爆走一番星 ) (1975)
Truck Yarou Boukyo ichiban-boshi (トラック野郎 望郷一番星 ) (1976)
Truck Yarou: Tenka gomen (トラック野郎 天下御免 ) (1976)
Truck Yarou: Dokyo ichibanboshi (トラック野郎 度胸一番星 ) (1977)
Truck Yarou: Otoko ippiki Momojiro (トラック野郎 男一匹桃次郎 ) (1977)
Truck Yarou: Totsugeki ichiban-boshi (トラック野郎 突撃一番星 ) (1978)
Truck Yarou: Ichiban-boshi kita he kaeru (トラック野郎 一番星北へ帰る) (1978)
Truck Yarou: Neppu 5000 km (トラック野郎 熱風5000キロ ) (1979)
Truck Yarou: Furusato tokkyubin (トラック野郎 故郷特急便 ) (1979)

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