The directorial debut of popular indie-helmer SABU shows much promise, but lacks the kinetic energy the title suggests…
Fairly pathetic human being Yasuda (Tomorô Taguchi, Tetsuo, The Eel) has decided to rob a bank, but as is fitting with the underwhelming and inept nature of his life up to this point, he has forgotten to take a mask. So he goes to a local convenience store, with the intention to steal one, but again he messes up. He ends up shooting Aizawa, the clerk (Diamond✡Yukai, Lost in Translation), who chases Yasuda onto the streets. The pair then bump into the suicidal Yakuza Takeda (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?) – and of course the drug addict/musician Aizawa owes him money, so begins a chase of the three men across Tokyo. Through flashbacks and hallucinatory sequences, we learn about the back stories of our three protagonists, until they find themselves in the middle of a Yakuza war.
So when I was first asked to review this movie, sight unseen, I was confused as to why Third Window Films were releasing a 22-year-old Japanese Indie film. The answer was clear when I checked a little further – this is the directorial debut of actor/director SABU (aka Hiroyuki Tanaka, Ichi the Killer, Miss Zombie), whose work comes with high recommendations from other critics (and more importantly other easternKickers!). To be honest, I know of him more for his acting roles than his work behind the camera, so I was intrigued how this first exposure might go.
On the whole, it’s really rather entertaining. At a brisk 82 minutes, it ensures the fairly high-concept idea of the film (i.e. 3 men running around the streets of night-time Tokyo) doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. By casting Tomorô Taguchi as the lead you are assured of not only a solid performance, but also connections with other popular (yet not mainstream) directors such as Shin’ya Tsukamoto and Takashi Miike. Taguchi does a good line in alienated Japanese everyman, so this casting is perfect. The same could be said for Shin’ichi Tsutsumi who has filled much of his career playing upright Yakuza types. Then add in rock singer Diamond✡Yukai, and you get someone a little stranger to subverting things a little.
So it’s a strong cast and an interesting idea, and is solidly put together, mostly with great wit and style, only occasionally succumbing to the first-time director curse of being a little too flashy with tricks and whatnot. I even found myself laughing a few times, and I never once checked the clock or my phone because I wasn’t being entertained. I really enjoyed the soundtrack too. Yet clearly something is awry as I have only awarded it a bang-average 2.5 stars.
This is because of two real issues I have with the film. The first is one of style – this is a movie that is fundamentally about 3 guys running, physically and metaphorically (though are they running from their pasts, or towards a future?). Whilst there are scenes that show this with energy and creative camerawork, too often the narrative is slowed down to a crawl to go examine a backstory, usually Takeda’s. It just doesn’t have the inbuilt kinetic energy I would have expected to carry this film from minute one to the closing credits. It’s easy to compare this with Tom Tykwer’s 1998 Run Lola Run, and that would be a mistake on a whole bunch of levels, but on the whole Dangan Runner doesn’t have the heart pumping drive running through it that the German film has.
The second problem? The other story going on about a Yakuza war. Far too much time is given over to this storyline, and the way it leads to the eventually nihilistic ending feels a little lazy.
I think it is great that Third Window Films are digging a little deeper into the list of modern Japanese non-mainstream directors, as great as Miike and Sono are, I do feel that there are a bunch of creators, such as SABU, who have their work woefully unavailable and therefore unappreciated in the West. And whilst Dangan Runner might be nothing more than a competent initial outing, it HAS piqued my personal interest in exploring the directorial works of SABU more, so I think that might be a success all on its own.