Aside from “Be-bop High School”, Hiroshi Takahashi’s “Crows” is probably the most well-known juvenile delinquent shonen (boys’) manga in Japan. Therefore, making a live-action film adaptation that could possibly live up to readers’ expectations while also appealing to a mass audience was no easy task. Thankfully Takashi Miike was up to the challenge. Also, casting a schoolgirl-scream-inducing pretty boy like Shun Oguri in the lead role surely didn’t hurt.
Crows Zero features an original story which takes place before the events of the 1990s manga. Major characters from the comic like Hiromi and Bando are present, but at this point they’re still first and second year students that generally stay along the periphery of the main plot.
The film begins in earnest as the first-year students at Suzuran High get a quick indoctrination to the politics of their new school when a massive brawl breaks out at their enrollment ceremony. At Suzuran, the toughest school in all of Japan, students struggle for dominance over their fellow classmates with the eventual goal of conquering the entire school. The problem is that so many tough guys enroll at Suzuran expecting to be the big dog that they find it difficult to follow another leader without sufficient “convincing”. Because of this, total dominance has never been achieved at Suzuran in its entire history, even by the current boss of the Ryuseikai crime family: Hideo Takitani (Goro Kishitani).
Family dysfunction being what it is, Takitani’s son Genji (Oguri) decides that he’s going to accomplish what his old man never could. And as he sees it, the only thing standing in his way is third-year student Serizawa (Takayuki Yamada). Unfortunately things just aren’t that simple, and Genji’s going to have to make an impression on his new classmates before they’ll start siding with him. His first opportunity presents itself when some yakuza, underlings of the Soshu family, show up looking for Serizawa. Unfortunately Serizawa isn’t around, but Genji is. So while hundreds of impressionable freshmen look on, Genji proceeds to beat down four yakuza before Serizawa suddenly shows up to witness the resulting carnage. Genji has made his impression.
Later on Genji is approached by a high-ranking but completely inept Soshu yakuza named Ken Katagiri (Kyosuke Yabe). Ken is still under the impression that Genji is Serizawa and wants to teach him a lesson, but a quick punch to the gut convinces him otherwise. As it turns out, Ken is a former Suzuran student himself but dropped out before accomplishing anything of note. Because of this, he sees Genji as someone he can live vicariously through. Even though Ken is a yakuza, he’s not very respected, and usually ends up getting slapped around by boss Yazaki (Kenichi Endo) or fetching stuff at the convenience store for his lower ranking yakuza brothers.
Ken may be a 2-bit yakuza, but he understands something Genji doesn’t: it’ll take a lot more than brute force to climb to the top of Suzuran. So in an effort to atone for his own high school failures he teaches Genji the importance of posturing, diplomacy, and the occasional awe-inspiring soliloquy. The next day Genji goes back to school, notebook in hand, and begins recruiting his army while occasionally pausing studiously to read Ken’s instructions.
Surprisingly, Ken’s advice actually works pretty well. Genji eventually manages to recruit three extremely tough class leaders to stand with him against Serizawa, all via completely different means. But now that Genji’s newly-formed alliance, GPS (Genji’s Perfect Succession) is gaining steam, Serizawa’s underlings begin to employ some pretty unseemly tactics behind their leader’s back. This causes Genji to go completely berserk, threatening his ability to be a true leader.
The rest of the film deals mostly with Genji’s struggle to keep his burgeoning alliance together while Ken’s loyalty is put to the ultimate test by his own boss. Oh and there’s fighting—lots and lots of fighting.
“Crows Zero” is the quintessential shonen manga adaptation done right. The one thing that keeps most yankee (bad boy) movies from really capturing the imaginations of jaded western audiences—the perception that they have too many dramatic pauses or take themselves too seriously—is totally counterbalanced by Miike’s frenetic approach to filmmaking and customary injection of wry wit. Genji might be a total badass, but that doesn’t stop him from bursting into tears and muttering to himself when his love interest (Meisa Kuroki) yells at him. Serizawa can take down average thugs without bothering to take his hands out of his pockets, but he’s far more enamored with himself when he gets an ultra-rare tile combo in mahjong.
The action scenes are well-choreographed and manage to sell completely unrealistic levels of punishment and a few broken laws of physics. Punches land like sandbags on concrete and are accompanied by guttural yells that would make Shun Sugata or Ren Osugi proud. Cronies fall as soon as they’re touched by class leaders or go flying 15ft across the ground if they’re really laid into with any sort of gusto. Obviously, the majority of the film leads up to an inevitable war between GPS and Serizawa’s army, and that war doesn’t disappoint. There are obvious shades of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders” as it begins pouring rain right before the final rumble. What follows is a 20-minute, testosterone-fueled free-for-all that probably would have been a whole lot cooler were it not for an oddly-placed Meisa Kuroki pop song and gratuitous use of slow-mo. But those are pretty minor hiccups in what was, without a doubt, one of the most entertaining movies of 2007.