Crazy Thunder Road (1980) review

Introduction

Thanks to Third Windows Films, a whole new generation of international film-lovers can finally experience Sōgo Ishii’s breakthrough hit, Crazy Thunder Road. What started a graduation project turned in a nationwide hit when it was bought and distributed by Toei Studios in cinema all over the country. Read our review to discover why you should not pass up this wonderful opportunity to see this newly remastered punk classic.

Third Windows Films

Review

One day, Ken (Koji Nanjō), the leader of a notorious biker gang in Tokyo, informs his members of his desire to disband Maboroshi Kamikaze bikers to pursue his romance witha barmaid Noriko (Michiko Kitahara). Ken’s decision fractures his gang, as Jin (Tatsuo Yamada) take the lead over a bunch of Maboroshi bikers who feel betrayed, oppose those who meekly follow Ken’s decision, and heave havoc.

Crazy Thunder Road (1980) by Sogo Ishii

Crazy Thunder Road is a narrative that explores the dynamic of youthful rebellion from the viewpoint of the punk and rock-and-roll sub-cultures of the late seventies/early eighties. While the narrative is sometimes confusing, due to the number of characters, Ishii’s narrative clearly delineates the goal of our biker-rebels. Simply said, they fight against a conformist Other that limits their pleasure, they fight for pleasure.

Our biker-boys, in fact, stage the ‘festering desire’ that society aims to suppress with the law. Whereas everyone enjoys in their own little rooms, these bikers, held together by a code of their own, want to ‘enjoy’ out in the ‘open’ (e.g. ride wild in the streets, drawing sexual imagery on the walls of the Street Fire club house, fight with each other, take drugs, … etc.).

Yet, our bikers are no revolutionaries. They do not aim to change the societal system, but to gain pleasure from playing with the limits this law imposes. In fact, by playing with the societal law, transgressing it minimally for a cheap shot of enjoyment, they radically prove that are bound and abide by this societal law. Having said that, their rebellious spectacle is not merely about enjoying their transgressions out in the open, but also about pleasing themselves by confronting the other (e.g. the police, salarymen, other bikers, … etc.) with their inability, i.e. their castration. 

Crazy Thunder Road (1980) by Sogo Ishii

The gang violence follows a similar dynamic. Their violence does not merely aim to prove who is stronger – read who has the bigger phallus, but also to enjoy the very violent corroboration of such phallic fantasy in a context where the societal law is being transgressed. The phallic nature of gang-violence and the rebellious attitude that marks our bikers is subtle underlined by the fact that the phallus that adorns the wall of the Street Fire Club House is in an erect state and winged. The ‘phallic’ dynamic is also discernable in the very signifiers vocalized in verbal confrontations and the signifiers they use when speaking about or to women.  

Crazy Thunder Road – and this is important – does not only stage the underlying dynamic of our bikers but also explores a variety of possible outcomes for a kind of phallicism aimed at pleasure. To cut to the chase, each outcome reveals, in its own way, the untenability of the rebellious way to satisfy one’s fantasy of masculinity. Some, like Ken, abandon the phallic game because they found a ‘revolutionary’ way to be a man for a woman. Others become what they opposed, i.e. the representatives of the law, the cops. Yet rather than enjoy playing with the limits of the law, they extract some enjoyment from punishing those who do not abide by the law.

Crazy Thunder Road (1980) by Sogo Ishii

A militaristic, nationalistic ideal/fantasy can also function as an escape for some of our bikers. Why can such right-wing militaristic nationalistic fantasy function as an escape from their rebellious biker-existence? Simply said, because it is also phallic in nature and succeeds in giving the individual phallic desires a greater purpose – i.e. protect the country with our manly might (Narra-note 1 (spoiler).

Others, like Jin, pride themselves on their continued pursuit of enjoyment under the guise of their phallic fantasy. Yet, such search to please one’s fantasy with a shot of pleasure is ultimately self-destructive and ends in some sort of castration. The self-destructive nature is first underlined when Jin, in full knowledge of the army of bikers that awaits him, still desires to save Yukio (Daichi Masamitsu).

The composition of Crazy Thunder Road stands out due to its visceral energy (e.g. past-faced movement, fast cutting, … etc.) and its rough and unrefined nature. While such roughness often negatively impacts narratives, this is not the case for Ishii’s narrative. The visceral roughness of the dynamism enhances the crude coolness of biker culture as well as the forlorn nihilism of the industrial cyberpunk atmosphere. Moreover, it expresses, in a rather direct way, the passion and the youthful energy of its director (Cine-note 1). 

Crazy Thunder Road (1980) by Sogo Ishii

The roughness of the composition as well as Ishii’s passion also finds its expression in the musical accompaniment. The rock-punk pieces do not only beautifully echo the roughness of the visuals but also gives the anarchical and rebellious culture of the bikers its seductive flair. The softer musical pieces, for that matter, infuses the biker culture with a tinge of romanticism or highlight a short moment of romance as such. The gritty industrial atmosphere of Crazy Thunder Road is guided by the lightning and colour-design, either by painting scenes in slightly drab colours or by radical contrasting darkness/shadows with over-emphasized city and vehicle lights. Yet, by playing with colour – be it with spots or neon, Ishii also succeeds to give the biker-culture and the interaction between bikers a crude stylishness. 

Crazy Thunder Road is, despite not being Ishii’s best, a narrative that any fan of Japanese cinema should check out. Ishii’s graduation work might be unpolished and rough around the edges, but he still succeeds in showing off his visual talent and passion as filmmaker and deliver a touching, but nihilistic and wild exploration of the self-destructive nature of a relentless search for a dose of pleasure.

 

Notes

Narra-note 1: Ishii also emphasizes the untenability of the nationalistic answer in his narrative.  

Cine-note 1: Ishii’s youthful excitement is also evident in the different styles that he employs, like the silent-film style with intertitles he utilizes to frame the conversation between Ken and his beloved barmaid.

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