While Sabu is well-known for his more recent comedy narratives like Chasuke’s Journey (2015) and Miss Zombie (2013), narratives that braid the chain of his oeuvre, it is always fun and enlightening to return to very first narrative, the very first signifier of the oeuvre full of action-comedies exploiting forces of coincidence. In the case of Sabu, his first feature film was nothing than Dangan Runner.
[The Blu-ray of Dangan Runner is sold by Third Windows Films.]
When Yasuda (Tomorowo Taguchi) realizes that he forgets 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 investigation of the ideal image of maleness as well as the guiding power such phallic image has for the male speaking being. This investigation 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 is necessary to be able to prove his manliness and his phallic worth (Narra-note 2). And “yatteruyo”, the expression he whispers to himself before he sets of to rob a bank, 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 have 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 imagined to be full. This is also evoked by Aizawa’s position as failed rock-star. In order to cope with his failure to his ideal image of manliness, he finds solace in drugs. His use of drugs is charged with sexuality – note that Aizawa vocalizes “yatteruyo” as well – and puts him partially outside the social bond. Takeda, which is the third main character of the narrative, is also marked by failure. But his failure is somewhat special as his failure, 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 the ideal image. The first fundament that gets highlighted is the link between the phallic image of maleness and one’s particular way of desiring and enjoyment, a way which is ever related to women’s sexuality as such (Psycho-note 1). The second fundament that is touchingly formulated by the narrative is 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 the interesting narrative structure. Sabu has crafted a rhythmic and pulsating structure punctuated first and foremost by three moments of cinematographical rest, flashback-like structures that establish each character’s point of failure with respect to their internalized ideal image. After the establishing of the characters, Sabu intertwines a secondary narrative concerning Yakuza rivalry into the main narrative of the 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 rhythmicity of the music. The quirky drum-based music 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 give the cinematography its power. That being said, camera movement does feel a bit more rough than intended, but it fails to disturb the enjoyment one can extract from this narrative. Furthermore, the various snappy compositions communicate the fun Tanaka Shinji, the editor, had as much as it highlight the talent of Sabu as director.
While Dangan Runner is somewhat rough around the cinematographical edges, it nevertheless remains an extremely enjoyable investigation of the central role of the imaginary dimension of the phallic object within male psychological functioning. While this narrative is interesting for fans of Sabu, because it marks the beginnings of what would become Sabu’s 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.