Suzuran High is not your average high school. Suzuran High is where all the badass kids end up after their badass antics have seen them expelled from every other school in the city. At this school you will be defined not by your academic prowess, nor by your performance on the sports field - no, at Suzuran what counts is your behaviour in the corridors and hallways. Your standing is defined in a fairly literal way - it’s about where and how you stand and those who stand behind you. The only thing that matters is being the top dog; the guy with the fists that have beaten every other contender into submission.
Yes, Suzuran High is a school for little Yakuza. It might as well be called Yakuza Academy and have done with it - on graduating students will be finding employment based on their affiliations and placement in the pack whilst at school. New boy Genji (Shun Ogata) has picked Suzuran High for just this reason. Determined to do what his yakuza boss father never could, Genji hopes that by ruling Suzuran he will prove himself worthy of one day taking over the family business. However, present tough guy Tamao Serizawa (Takayuki Yamada) might have something to say about that, not to mention the other dozens of hopefuls in contention. It’s going to take more than raw muscle to win this fight, there may be other lessons that have to be learned if anyone is going to conquer and rule Suzuran.
As you might expect from that synopsis, this is a very male-oriented film. It’s full of angry, testosterone fuelled adolescents desperate to prove their manliness through physical dominance. The fights, which do take up a lot of the screen time, are very impressively done - the heavy stylisation is an excellent way of baring out the story’s manga origins. Even so, it’s not wall-to-wall fighting, as there’s also room for the traditional high school tropes of male bonding and difficult friendships. As the teenage years often are it’s somewhat melodramatic, but what Miike has managed to accomplish is to reflect in a very real way just how exaggeratedly important everything feels to the average seventeen year old.
In fact, it’s just this awareness that contributes to the humourous tone of the film. There’s something almost funny about watching all of these tough guys striking poses and posturing in their almost boybandesque get up, not to mention some totally ridiculous hairstyles. Everything is played so seriously that it's easy to see the inherent comedy of the situation. Add in some slapstick and some very odd situations - like a tough guy Yakuza wannabe getting totally stressed out about the world of dating - and you’ve got yourself a very funny, if slightly odd, film.
Even though there are an immense number of characters and sub-plots, Miike’s steady hand never loses track of what’s going on or lets the audience get confused. We come to know the two central characters quite quickly and they both get a decent slice of character development throughout the film. Genji starts off as an aloof, mindless fist machine and ends up a level-headed leader of men whereas Serizawa starts off as a win at all costs tough guy who comes to see what’s really important. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the most rubbish Yakuza to ever grace the screen, Ken, who ends up becoming something of a mentor to Genji. Close to the beginning of the film we think we see him utter a sentence which trails off but has a conclusion that seems obvious. However, later in the film we learn that we were mistaken and the completion of that early sentence is something totally unpredictable - it is at once both truly surprising and surprisingly moving.
Like many of Miike’s films, Crows Zero is consciously larger than life and takes place in an almost cartoonishly surreal universe but nevertheless succeeds in creating genuinely engaging characters and dynamics. Mostly it’s just a fun film about teenage boys endlessly fighting (but never really getting hurt) but underneath all that there is a deeper message about the futility of violence and the utter pointlessness of the quest to be top dog - after all, even if you win there will always be more guys wanting to take it from you. Its gleeful mocking of teenage angst might not please everyone but Crows Zero is certainly worth checking out just for the masterful way it weaves high drama with fairly ridiculous comedy. You might think you’ve seen all this before but trust me, you haven't seen it presented like this.