Hairpin Circus (1972)April 23, 2010
Hairpin Circus (Japan, 1972)
In the 1970’s a car film craze took over the US movie industry. This did not, however, remain solely American phenomena. Just prior to the first oil crisis that eventually catalyzed the Japanese automotive industry to its final international breakthrough, Japan’s Toho Company released Hairpin Circus, the Nipponese answer to The Vanishing Point (1971). Rather than American machines, Hairpin Circus places Japan’s Toyota 2000GT, and its challenger in the movie, Mazda Savanna RX-3, in the spotlights.
Hairpin Circus is a story of a former race driver Misao (Kiyoshi Misaki), who left the motor sports world after a traumatizing race accident. Love for cars remains, though, and he now makes a living as a driving instructor. The local youth tease him daily, trying to challenge him into their irresponsible street races. How long can the old wolf refuse the temptation to show the new adrenaline addict generation what real driving is all about?
The film’s asset is realism. The stunts are real, as is most of the 1971 Macau Grand Prix that was written into the storyline. The filmmakers were allowed to shoot on location while the actual race took place. This was made possible by the fact that Misaki was a real life race driver who took part the race with his Honda JRM AC-7, and finished 3rd. Therefore, the race sequence seen in the film is a mix of authentic footage and added fictional parts. The same concept was used the preceding year’s Steve McQueen vehicle Le Mans. McQueen, however, was not allowed to jump behind the wheel for real. That’s the official version at least, rumors tell a different story.
Those expecting a Halicki-like demolition derby will be disappointed. More than about destruction and chaos, Hairpin Circus is about driving, and the philosophical aspect of hunger for speed. The talent found on both sides of the wheel is undeniable. Stylish footage is plenty, and especially night scenes are beautiful to look at. The amount of racing scenes is high, and the finale stretches itself to full 17 minutes. The filmmakers also deserve credit for shooting on real streets, occasionally even in heavy traffic. In today’s Japan, infamous for its hellish red tape, capturing such footage would be next to impossible.
Aside from car fanatics, Hairpin Circus also has something to offer to those interested in early 1970’s Japanese mindset. After the Second World War the nation united to rigorously rebuild the country and its economy. A few decades later a small change was starting to raise its head; the new generation was less interested in traditional Japanese obedience, and was looking for new thrills. Street races would provide one channel for that. Misao, representing the older generation, has tasted the real sweat and blood, but even he longs for real action. His opponents, lead by a young woman, hardly even understand the risks of the game they are playing.
The actual storyline in Hairpin Circus is thin. The characters are not especially interesting, and the plot features no real catches. Despite the plentiful car footage the film’s tempo is often slowish, occasionally even dream like, but not in a bad way at all. It is the atmosphere, supported by a skillful sound design, that Hairpin Circus really excels in. In racing scenes the intensity is often build almost unnoticeably, as the viewer, little by little, is sucked into the world of sports cars speeding in the dark night. Interest towards the subject is recommended, though, as otherwise this exhilarating and existentialist car film may not fully open to the viewer.