It’s a well-known fact that Sabu’s first film, Dangan Runner, was the inspiration for Tom Tykwer’s 1998 German hit, “Run, Lola, Run”. The tremendous international success of that film eventually got programmers for Loews Theaters’ indie distribution arm, “The Shooting Gallery” to briefly re-name Dangan Runner “Non-Stop” and screen it in New York in the fall of 2000. Nothing really ever came from that, however; I don’t think distribution went far beyond those screenings and a short-lived stint on VHS (good luck finding a non-bootleg copy now—TSG doesn’t exist anymore). Unfortunately this moderate, short-lived hype may have been a bit misdirected because Sabu’s debut, like most filmmakers’ debuts, is probably his most disjointed offering to date. He’s since gone on to make a number of far-superior films, none of which have so much as sniffed a proper US release.
The film begins as Tomorowo Taguchi’s character, Yasuda, begins to the process of following through with a long-planned bank robbery in a misguided attempt to make up for his own ineptitude in other areas of his life. Through flashbacks we find out that he was recently fired from his job as a kitchen porter in the most humiliating way possible and subsequently dumped by his girlfriend for a more “mature” man. Unfortunately his ineptitude rears its ugly head again when he realizes that in all his meticulous planning he forgot to bring a mask to disguise his face. He quickly runs across the street to buy an allergy mask but a delay caused by their daunting selection makes him to panic and attempt to shoplift a mask, only to be spotted by the eagle-eyed store clerk Aizawa (Diamond Yukai). Even brandishing a gun doesn’t seem to command respect for a man like Yasuda, either from Aizawa or a group of chatty young women in the corner of the store playfully insulting his every move. However, firing the gun and grazing Aizawa in the arm does a better job of getting his attention, and soon a frenetic foot-chase is on.
Now that the prospect of a bank robbery is completely out the window we instead get an extended chase scene in which a pissed-off Aizawa attempts to run down Yasuda. In what will be a trend for the rest of the movie, flashbacks give some insight into his own history as the lead singer of a popular band and a heroin addict whose habits get him in trouble with a particular local yakuza named Takeda (Shinichi Tsutsumi)—who also happens to be the same guy who sold Yasuda the gun he shot Aizawa with. Of course the two men (literally) run into this yakuza along the way and a stray bullet ends up killing an innocent bystander. Takeda pulls out a knife and joins the chase.
This basically leads to a scenario which amounts to the dog chasing the cat chasing the mouse, but after a while they stop chasing each other and just keep running together for the sheer joy of running itself. Watching extended scenes of running edited together with shaky close-up after shaky close-up of these characters panting is about as fun as watching your dog chase its tail; mildly amusing for the first few minutes, but after a while it’s enough already. All this running and panting eventually leads to the biggest unlikely coincidence of a film chock full of unlikely coincidences; culminating with an appropriately way-over-the-top, yet clichéd ending.
Unfortunately for Dangan Runner—but fortunately for us—Sabu went on to hone his skills while repeating some of the same conventions to far greater effect in films like Postman Blues and Dead Run. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, this film plays like a testing ground for what would later become the director’s style. And while it may have helped him find his voice for later projects, the bottom line is that aside from a few funny gags and occasionally clever interweaving of plot elements, it’s just not as fun or entertaining as its frenetic pace would suggest.