Archive for the ‘Car / Biker’ Category

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Circuit no ookami

May 26, 2010

Saakitto no ookami (Japan, 1977)

Currently lacking official English title, Circuit no ookami (Circuit Wolf) is a title unlikely to ring the bells of international movie audiences. Fans of Japanese manga may recognize the source material, but overseas this racing epic remains largely unknown. Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi on the other hand needs little introductions – his films Delinquent Girl Boss (1970), Sister Street Fighter (1974) and Karate Bear Fighter (1977) are among the most enjoyable Japanese action movies from the 1970’s.

Circuit no ookami unloads its strongest assets right in the beginning. The film’s opening credits sequence is among the coolest introductions in recent memory, alongside Teruo Ishii’s wonderfully nutty Karate Inferno (1974). Masato Shimon’s theme song could be compared to the greatest tokusatsu TV-show tunes, with the major difference being that this time the song is marred with shots of shiny Lotus Europa Special, rather than super hero battles.

Unlike most of Yamaguchi action movies, Circuit no ookami is family friendly entertainment. Aside sports cars that often steal the spotlight, the film is packed with silly humor, and no violence or sex at all. No doubt this has much to do with the source material. The original Circuit no ookami manga was released in the Weekly Shounen Jump youth magazine in 1975-1979. While “based on comics” has traditionally been as accurate of a description of content with Japanese movies as “based on novel” with American films, Circuit no ookami certainly displays its manga roots in good and bad. From story structure to caricature-like characters Circuit no ookami is comic book come alive.

Those looking for serious minded car movie may be disappointed, although the wide display of impressive sports cars from around the world alone should be enough to spark the interest of any motorhead. Lamborghini Miura P400SV, Ferrari Miura 246GT, BMW 2002 Turbo, Pontiac Firebird Trans am, Ford Mustang Mach 1, Lancia Stratos, and police equipped Nissan Fairlady 240Z are only some examples of the vehicles featured in the movie. Most of the the cars are handled with silk gloves, although the budget has allowed the wrecking of a couple of cheaper models. Aside high way races the film also makes visits to genuine racing events, and thus introducing a handful of real life professional in cameo roles (of which most of the performers were probably happily unaware before – and after – the release of the film).

In terms of storyline Circuit no ookami has little to offer. The protagonist is car mechanic Yuya (Shinya Fubuki) who dreams of becoming a race driver. His daily routine – working with cars, and collecting pictures of his idol Niki Lauda – is interrupted by the appearance of an exotic girl (Mei Yokomoto) and troublesome car maniacs from Jiro “Sonny’s brother” Chiba to a baffling Porsche Nazi gang. Over the top characters amuse for a moment, but the joke tends to get old. There’s no risk of boredom, but the bar set by the opening scenes in never reached. The theme song could’ve been featured more than twice, too, especially since the latter time is an instrumental version only.

The film’s finale attempts to combine the best of both worlds, with somewhat clumsy results. After first directing its protagonist to the Suzuki Circuit race track (once again filled with motor sports celebrities, such as former F1 driver Kazuyoshi Hoshino), the film soon opts for a side path, taking its fictional characters to mountain roads to battle for speed supremacy. The technical execution is solid enough, although unforgettable chase scenes are not to be found this film. In all honesty, director Yamaguchi’s somewhat fragmented action directing is better fit for furious karate movies than car chase films that would require a more gentle and fetish-like approach towards its shiny sports cars.

Finally, a fun little detail must be pointed out. While there may be good reasons for Circuit no ookami’s overflowing car promotion, Lotte’s chewing gum is more difficultly justified. Nokia, Apple, and other product placement loving companies of today pale in comparison to Lotte’s bold strategy of having the film’s heroes ride to the sunset with a piece of easily identifiable chewing gum in their mouth!

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Violent Panic: The Big Crash

May 14, 2010

Boso panikku: Daigekitotsu (1976)

Kinji Fukasaku’s more than a decade long career in crime and yakuza film was finally closing to its end in 1976. Signs of slacking were nowhere to be found, though. On the contrary, 1976 was a strong year for Fukasaku. The brilliant Yakuza Graveyard toned down the director’s trademark hectic camerawork a few notches and took a tighter than usual focus on one man’s personal battle. Similar development was already visible in the same year’s Violent Panic: The Big Crash. While not as masterful as Yakuza Graveyard, Violent Panic does succeed in being twice as insane of an achievement.

Completely ignoring Fukasaku’s basic theme – the world of organized crime – Violent Panic follows bank robber Takashi (Tsunehiko Watase). Takashi’s plan goes wrong right from the beginning and his partner in crime is killed during the escape. With the police on his heels, Takashi’s run is further complicated by a new girlfriend (Miki Sugimoto) picked up from the bar floor, and a ruthless criminal (Hideo Murota) majorly pissed off from his brother’s death that he considers Takashi’s fault.

Loaded with reliable Toei actors, Violent Panic’s most interesting casting choice is the pinky violence star Miki Sugimoto. Like her genre sister Reiko Ike, Sugimoto was driven to look for roles in other genres as the girl boss genre went past its prime in mid 70’s. Ike found herself employed by master Fukasaku several times – in relatively small roles, though – while Sugimoto received the honor only once. Sometimes referred as Monotonic Miki, the bad girl has thankfully improved her acting range in Violent Panic. While no Meiko Kaji, she does manage her emotional role as a weak girlfriend without major shortcomings.

Storywise Violent Panic is slick and straight forward, by no means among Fukasaku’s best efforts. Unlike the grave-serious original Battles without Honor and Humanity films (1973-1974), there is a notable amount of humor included. The main responsibility for comic relief is given to Takuzo Kawatani, whose ill-tempered policeman constantly has to keep his unfaithful girlfriend (pinky violence co-star Yayoi Watanabe, who shows little attachment to her uniform… or any other clothes…) on eye. At times, Kawatani’s one man comedy show is about to step on the way of the action, but mostly he is kept in control, more or less.

What raise Violent Panic in the league of 70’s action classics is the car chase scenes. Featuring several shorter chases along the way, the film concludes in unforgettable demolition derby as the desperate Takashi attempts to escape the police, media, motorcycle gangs, and angered civilians. While not a sophisticated scene by any means, this 20 minute series of crashes and thrills is quite a jaw dropper and no doubt among the most insane pieces of car action captured on camera, in Japan or elsewhere.

Violent Panic’s finale basically summarizes the entire film. For fans of serious crime dramas the film may not have that much to offer. Those looking for fast paced action entertainment should, however, prepare to be blown away. While subplots are tied together in less than convincing way, it does little to harm the movie as the focus is in the audio-visual fireworks. The film’s soundtrack was composed by Fukasaku’s long time collaborator Toshiaki Tsushima, who showcases some of his best work in Violent Panic. While brilliantly supporting the action scenes Tsushima’s score also comes with impressive melancholic moments. These are, however, in the minority, as both Tsushima and Fukasaku invest in honest, no holds barred action entertainment.

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Dead Heat (1977)

May 5, 2010

Hakunetsu Dead Heat (Japan, 1977)

In 1972 Toho Company, best known among international audiences for their sci-fi and samurai movies, became the forerunner of Japanese car movies with the existentialist Hairpin Circus. Five years later, when Dead Head was released, the situation had changed dramatically. Competing studio Toei had already launched a minor motor film boom a few years before, with movies such as the Truck Yarou series (1975-1979), and several other films, providing the cinematic gasoline thrills for the audience.

Unlike Hairpin Circus, Dead Heat is pure pulp entertainment: a genre film executed by a less talented crew with more ambition for entertainment that artistic value. It’s also a film breathing the same cheap car action spirit that provided inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. Specialists can no doubt estimate the film’s budget from the cars wrecked in it. Then again, there’s nothing wrong with movies that simply aim at entertaining the audience and empty their wallets, especially when the film even manages to fulfill some of the promises given by the marketing department.

Utilizing typical exploitation film story structures – but not their graphic imagery – Dead Heat is predictable in both good and bad. The intriguing opening throws three youngsters into the heat of the night, where challenging total strangers to street races serves as late night entertainment. The life of these carefree fellows comes to a dramatic change when one of them takes a stand against the wrong man, and finds himself, and his vehicle, on the bottom of a river. Just in time to witness his friend’s last breath, Taku (Jun Eto) swears revenge for the mysterious phantom rider. It’s time say goodbye to the fellow workers at the gas station, and invest the insurance money into a brand new weapon; a turbo charged Toyota Celica 2000GT LB, complete with aluminum paint.

Taku’s revenge mission takes him through the cities and countryside of Japan. He meets various characters, many of which have crossed paths with the phantom rider. None of them, however, seem to know where exactly this Nissan Ken & Mary 2000GTX Hardtop cruising devil could be found. Some of Taku’s new acquaintances are enjoyable genre caricatures, others overly cliché and plain unnecessary screen time wasters. The young hitchhiker girl (Jun Fubuki) is an example of the latter: her role does little to serve the story, and does not even bring in a proper spark of romance. Better support is provided by the visiting metallic attractions: Camaro Z28, Mazda Savanna RX-3, and various others.

In terms of car action Dead Heat fares reasonably well. Most of the chases take place on mountain roads or in other distant locations. Rather than all out crash festival, the film concentrates on car vs. car duels. In the final confrontation both vehicles are trashed with a passion. Unfortunately the film is a bit sparse on action, and the middle third tends to drag a bit. Technical credits are solid enough – the car action has been captured with no major distractions. In some non-action scenes the handheld cinematography is strangely unstable, though.

Dead Heat is not a classic of its genre, nor does it necessarily live up to its premise. For lovers of old school car action it is, however, thoroughly passable entertainment. Aside quality chase scenes and classic cras, the film also comes with a 1970 B-action film atmosphere that is sure to please genre fans.

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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.

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Hairpin Circus stills

April 23, 2010

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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)