Sunday, August 26, 2012

Kamikaze Taxi (1995)

The phrase Kamikaze Taxi probably conjures an image of a taxi tearing down the road in a destructive suicide attack on its target - and much like the titles of a lot of 90's Yakuza films, it seems little more than a marginally applicable title meant to sound cool and violent (Like Blood or Wild Criminal, for example).  But during this hefty three hour movie, Kamikaze Taxi takes on a much deeper meaning, although it takes quite a while to get there.  It turns out that it wasn't just a flashy title after all, and Kamikaze Taxi actually isn't just a straight up action movie - It's just not really apparent until far into the film that there is a deeper meaning to the title, you get both the figurative and the literal mixed into the pot for this one.

The Plot.

Kamikaze Taxi is the tale of Minami Tatsuo (Takahashi Kazuya from The Ramen Girl), an orphaned, amoral and aimless Yakuza protege and newly minted pimp who works for Animaru, played by aged half-Japanese former rock legend Mickey Curtis (From Takashi Miike's Agitator and Yakuza Demon), who treads a fine line between bumbling Yakuza and hardened killer (as an aside, "Animaru" is a clever Japanese concoction that doubles for "animal" in English).  When Tatsuo mixes his whore-girlfriend up with the prostitution racket Animaru has going with slimy Japanese senator Domon (Naito Takatoshi as a blatant stereotype of the far right-wing pompous and ultra nationalistic nutcase Japanese politician), it results in her death at the hands (well, foot) of Animaru when she rages loudly about how the twisted perv Domon nearly beat her whore-friend Tama (Kataoka Reiko, Gonin 2, Onibi) to death.

Tatsuo is somewhat affected by the death of his whore-girlfriend, but he is more affected by Tama's description of the huge amount of cash that Domon has apparently stashed away in his house.  Tatsuo, seemingly losing his taste for the business decides to gather a few friends together to separate Domon from his very large stash of yen, and although they pull off the initial heist, Animaru and Domon's thugs inevitably catch up with them, and they lay waste to all involved except for Tatsuo, who is able to grab a gun and make an escape with the big bag of cash.

At this point Tatsuo meets up with taxi-driving Peruvian immigrant Kantake Kazumasa (played by ubiquitous actor Yakusho Koji (13 Assassins, Memoirs of a Geisha), and Kamikaze Taxi takes a turn for a road movie, with a bit of Tom Cruise's Collateral thrown in for good measure (although unlike Jaime Foxx's character, Kantake is a willing participant).  The rest of the movie is about the friendship that develops between the older and wiser immigrant Kantake, the numb and world weary Tama, and the brash and directionless Tatsuo, who decides that because he's dead anyway, he wants to take revenge on Domon and Animaru in a suicidal Kamikaze fashion - just don't be fooled, the Kamikaze in Kamikaze Taxi is a thread that runs deeper than this - Kantake's father was a Kamikaze pilot who didn't have the guts to die in battle, and after the war, he moved his family to Peru.

Noticeably (to me anyway), unlike most movies which attempt to set up an understandable justification for the protagonists desire for revenge, Tatsuo only marginally cared about his dead whore-girlfriend, and the responsibility for the deaths of his friends falls squarely on his shoulders for roping them into the heist in the first place.  I guess it's good enough that Animaru is a criminal, and Domon is a tremendously despicable human being...?

The Violent Rundown.

In the length-to-violence ratio, Kamikaze Taxi comes in pretty low.  A neck-stomp, some beatings, some off-screen stabbings and presumable torture, a few people hit by bullets here and there, a projectile filled with metal pachinko balls, and a couple executions round out the bloody action.  All in all this is primarily a crime adventure-drama, but also a feel good road movie for a large part of it, so the violence tends to be far between.

The Final Verdict.

Did I mention that this movie is LONG?  It weighs in at nearly three solid hours, and could really have used an editing job.  It could have comfortably been cut down to two hours (a long scene with a former self-help guru turned Charlie Chaplin impersonator comes to mind as something that could have justifiably gotten the axe, or possibly even the completely incongruous, random, and out of place personal interviews with characters interspersed throughout the film), but the movie doesn't suffer terribly for the length.  It did make me think that this is what a bad Shion Sono film would probably be like - very long and sometimes meandering, but without the meticulous attention to plot, story, and detail that Sono is notorious for.

Fortunately Kantake is a good balance to Tatsuo, and despite appearing to be the typically good natured but somewhat dumb foreigner stereotype commonly seen in many movies, Kantake develops into the strongest character, and really carries the film to the end.  Japanese movies often ignore the Hollywood convention, and Kamikaze Taxi is no different.  The "Happy Ending" isn't what you'd expect, and the strange detours taken (literally and figuratively) in the film confound Hollywood convention, but it's when you get what you don't expect that things get interesting.

Despite being in need of some skilled editing, the movie does succeed as a complete package, and the use of South-American inspired flute music (apparently composed by a Japanese composer) is a welcome change from the bad rock or annoying jazz soundtracks of most Yakuza films.