In “Crows:Episode One” Genji (Shun Oguri) is a new transferee at the notorious Suzuran High aka the School of Crows. Suzuran High is noted, with good reason, to be the roughest of rough high schools in Japan. With that kind of reputation, it’s obvious Genji didn’t transfer to Suzuran to receive a better education. Rather, his father Hideo promised Genji he could succeed him as the crime boss of the Ryuseikai Yakuza gang if he is able to take leadership over Suzuran High. Thus Genji begins enrollment at Suzuran High with one goal in mind: to become the school’s undisputed leader.
The reigning king of Suzuran High is Tamao Serizawa (Takayuki Yamada) and his group the Serizawa gang. Tamao notices Genji immediately, when Genji beats up members of a rival yakuza gang that came to school to settle a beef with Tamao. A new rival to Tamao indeed has landed at the School of Crows.
Unfortunately for Genji, what he has in fighting skills is offset by his lack of diplomatic skills or the ability to lead. Individually he can take out the best of them, but at Suzuran High numbers are just as important. Thus to challenge the Serizawa gang, Genji must unite rival factions to make any serious challenge to the Serizawa gang. Genji then turns to Ken, one of the low-level yakuza member that came to school on his first day at school, for advice on uniting the different factions. Although Ken is a bumbling low-level Yakuza member, he was a former student of Suzuran High and is able to provide the minimum guidance necessary for Genji to challenge the Serizawa gang. Now a showdown for the ages is set to occur at Suzuran High.
“Crows:Episode O” is another clear example of the current Renaissance period in full bloom over Takashi Miike’s long directorial career. That’s not to de-emphasize his earlier work, but rather envious praise to the continual growth he shows during his middle age period. It’s obvious from the get go that “Crows:Episode 0? is the most commercial film of his career, having visuals that screams out big budget. In lesser hands, “commercial film” could be double-speak for “sell-out,” but in Miike’s case it just means the man has a palette that has gotten that much more expansive. The re-creation of Suzuran High was spot-on with just the right amount of anarchy, nihilism, and comic book like flavors built into the set. The climatic fight scene was even more impressive, tip-toeing between the manga world and film world in a totally novel way.
Having never read the comic, the few flaws found in the movie version can be blamed partially on the original comic and partially on the movie adaption. These flaws, while not show stoppers, did knock the movie down a notch from becoming a straight up classic. The first problem was with the soundtrack, which was a bomb, but not in a complimentary way. Earlier in the film, when the Suzuran punk kids gathered together at a seedy night club, the musical hors d’oeuvre of the day was a double bill of harmless commercial rock and Christina Aguillera like J-pop. Intuition told me that these group of punks would have pelted the band members with debris in the same manner that they pelted each other with punches in a just world. Adding more insult to injury, during that crazed fist-a-cuff finale, the movie screeched to a halt by the interspersion of a tepid romantic ballad sung by Ruka. This was the one moment where the commercial goals of the film became a clear distraction to the storytelling. The other fault I found in “Crows:Episode O” probably resulted more so from the comic, but nevertheless, it did distract from an otherwise stellar film. In particular, the sub-plot concerning Tokio’s health just didn’t seem to fit within the context of the rest of the movie. Furthermore, when that final battle scene was gearing up, a visual parallel was drawn between Genji’s quest to become the undisputed leader and Tokio’s quest to survive surgery. May have been nice in theory, but it just didn’t work in the movie.
Meanwhile, starring actors Shun Ogari and Takayuki Yamada were nearly perfect in their portrayals of the rival heroes. Shun Ogari displayed all the charisma that has already made him a much sought after star in Japan and Takayuki Yamada turned in just a head turning performance. This is the same man that played the uber geek in “Train Man: Densha Otaku.” Sweet indeed. Outside of the weak Tokio character, the supporting cast was nearly as strong, providing the colorful personalities needed to make its many individual characters stand out from each other.
“Crows:Episode 0? turns out to be one of the better manga adopted live action movies made to date. There’s definitely Miike’s wild stamp placed in the movie, while his other stamp … the ability to defy categorization is just as evident. After it’s all said and done, it seems Miike making a big budget film is just as impressive as Miike making a cutting edge low-budget cult film. Oh if you wondering about the episodic nature of the comic and that finale…get ready for “Crows Zero 2? in 2009. “Crows:Episode 0? is just a whole lot of fun.