While Sabu is well-known for his more recent comedy narratives like Chasuke’s Journey (2015) and Miss Zombie (2013), narratives that further the chain of his oeuvre, it is always fun and enlightening to return to the very first narrative, the very first signifier of an oeuvre full of action-comedies know for exploiting the forces of coincidence. In the case of Sabu, his first feature film was nothing other than Dangan Runner.
[The Blu-ray of Dangan Runner is sold by Third Windows Films.]
When Yasuda (Tomorowo Taguchi) realizes that he forgot his mask for his first bank robbery, he sees no other option than to try to shoplift a mask from a nearby convenience store. When his attempt goes wrong, he finds himself chased by the store’s clerk and washed-up rockstar Aizawa (Diamond Yukai). Not long thereafter, Aizawa runs into Takeda (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a yakuza to whom he owes money. A three-way pursuit through the streets of Tokyo begins.
As a narrative, one should read Dangan Runner as a lighthearted commentary on the ideal image of maleness as well as on the guiding power such phallic image has for the male speaking being. This commentary is first and foremost introduced by and born from the fundamental position of the women have in the fantasy of men, a position subtly highlighted by the evocation of the discrepancy between those who are observed to have it and he, Yasuda in particular, who realizes he do not possess it (Narra-note 1).
While it might sound cliché, Yasuda’s gun – note how he explores and adores it – does not fail to evoke a phallic quality. The gun, as violent object, acts as nothing other than a stand-in for the phallic object he does not have. But ‘it’ is a false object, as the imaginary phallus is but a fantasy supported by the signifier, e.g. “be a man and act like one”. Nevertheless, the gun, as object, is necessary to be able to prove his manliness and his phallic worth (Narra-note 2). This phallic dimension is also underlined by the expression he whispers to himself before he sets of to rob a bank, as “yatteruyo” is not without sexual connotations.
The scene in the convenience store further emphasizes the phallic dimension of the gun in particular and the narrative in general. The laughter of the four girls has no other effect than deflating the phallic quality of Yasuda’s gun and thus ridiculing his fragile ego. No wonder that he, in order to mend his deflated ego, responds with violence.
Dangan Runner ridicules this desire for phallic ‘power’ as it shows that no ‘object’ can replace the fundamental empty space of the phallus – a space that can only be imagined as full. This is also evoked by Aizawa’s position as failed rock-star. In order to cope with his failure to attain his ideal image of manliness, he seeks solace in drugs. His use of drugs is charged with sexuality – note that Aizawa vocalizes “yatteruyo” as well – but puts him partially outside the social bond. Takeda, the third main character of the narrative, is also marked by failure. But his failure is somewhat special as his failure, i.e. the non-correspondence of his speech with his act, is situated within the context of societal structure of the Yakuza. By failing to live up to the code of the Yakuza, he meets his lack with respect to the ideal manly yakuza image (Narra-note 3).
As the three of them are running, running for an ideal image that will forever remain a fantasy, the narrative is ably to subtly investigate the fundaments of this ideal image. The first fundament that is highlighted concerns the link between the phallic image of maleness and one’s particular way of desiring and enjoyment, a way ever connected to women’s sexuality as such (Psycho-note 1). The second fundament, a fundament touchingly formulated in the narrative, concerns the fact that, beyond the link with enjoyment, a male neurotic subject only wants to attain the ideal image of a man in order to be loved by a particular woman or an other.
What makes Dangan Runner so enjoyable is its interesting narrative structure. Sabu has crafted a rhythmic and pulsating structure punctuated first and foremost by three moments of cinematographical rest, i.e. the flashback-like structures that establish each character’s point of failure with respect to their internalized ideal image. After establishing his characters, Sabu infuses a secondary narrative of Yakuza rivalry into the main narrative of our runners – note that the scenes of the secondary narrative have the same function as the flash-back structures. The rhythm of the narrative is furthermore empowered by the rhythm of the quirky drum-based music, which also supports the cinematographical compositions as such.
If we look closer to the cinematography, it is easy to see that is not so much the mix of fixed and moving shots but the snappy camera movement and various interesting shot-compositions that gives the cinematography its power. That being said, camera movement does feel a bit more rough than intended, but it does not succeed to disturb the enjoyment one can extract from this narrative. The various snappy compositions subtly evokes the fun Tanaka Shinji, the editor, had as well as highlighting the talent of Sabu as director.
While Dangan Runner is somewhat rough around the cinematographical edges, Sabu has succeeded to craft an extremely enjoyable commentary on the role the imaginary phallic object plays within male psychological functioning. While this narrative is, without a doubt, a must-see for fans of Sabu, as it concerns the first rendition of what would later become his trademark narrative style, i.e. action-comedies driven by coincidence, this more cerebral comedy should, in fact, be on every Japanese cinema lover’s to-see list.
Narra-note 1: Note that the narrative also frames fantasies of some of the other characters. These fantasies a, to a lesser degree, also related to one’s image of manliness.
Narra-note 2: The loss of his gun has to be read as the loss of his phallic add-on. Without having it, there is, of course, no other option than to run.
Psycho-note 1: Fundamental fantasy – one’s particular relation with the object of desire, particular way of enjoyment.
Narra-note 3: Takeda’s image of maleness within the yakuza context is slightly different from the others, as it is structured by the code of the Yakuza as such. But do note that even this fantasy, as is shown by the narrative, is related to particular way of imagining sexuality as such.