“Even scumbags like us could change the future!”
I bet some of you are way ahead of me on HiGH&LOW, and some of you will be hearing of it for the first time here. Either way I’m excited for us to talk about it. No, this is not related to the Akira Kurosawa classic, and I’m honestly not sure what the title even means. But it it’s how they’ve labelled what Wikipedia describes as an “action media franchise” that has been going on in Japan since 2015. I never heard peep of it until the always with-it Twitter-er @HeadExposure raved about it in August.
You can check out that thread for an explanation and some clips, but I’ll try to sum up my understanding from having watched one movie so far. It’s kind of a fun challenge – I feel like one of those people trying to wrap their head around the FAST & FURIOUS series or Marvel or Star Wars way after the fact.
I believe it was always planned to turn into a movie series, but the story began on TV with HiGH&LOW: The Story of S.W.O.R.D., which lasted for two seasons. Those characters and storylines continued into this movie, which has since had two sequels, three spin-offs, a TV comedy series spin-off and an anime. (The movies, but not the other stuff, are all available on Netflix.)
The part that’s definitely way beyond my understanding is that it was created by a former pop star called Exile Hiro, from a group called Exile, and many of the gangs in the movie are various boy bands/music acts that are part of “The Exile Tribe,” so they have albums and tours and stuff related to this franchise. It kind of seems like if the Back Street Boys had an extended family like the Wu-Tang Clan except way bigger and then they all learned martial arts and made violent action movies together. Or is it more like if everyone in the FAST & FURIOUS movies did a concert tour together? I don’t know, but to quote Marge Simpson, “Music is none of my business.”
Movies, however, are my business, so I started with HIGH&LOW: THE MOVIE. You’d hope they’d try to make it pretty self-explanatory, and… well, in a way they did. Unlike, say, THE X-FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE, where they tried to make a story that stood on its own without knowing the story threads from the show that it’s tied to, this seems to be completely woven into, knitted around and triple sailor-knotted onto what honestly seems like way more than two seasons worth of storylines. I really think they tell you everything you need to know – if I’ve ever seen a movie with more flashbacks to previous works, it was SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 – but there are like two or three RED CLIFFs worth of factions and characters, it was already too much information to pick up on and retain before they started giving us clip packages of their backstories.
That’s not a complaint though. It was so comically overwhelming to me that it became kind of delightful. As the lady said in TENET, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” But if you’re intimidated, it turns out I skipped one called THE ROAD TO HiGH&LOW which edits the show into movie length, so I’m sure that helps. Silly me for assuming that the one subtitled “THE MOVIE” was the first in the series.
Man, there’s so much movie in THE MOVIE. After the cold open a narrator explains the background that there were these two friends, Kohaku (Akira – not the movie, but a dancer and actor who’s in LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN, a member of the aforementioned Exile, and most importantly the voice of Max in the Japanese dub of FURY ROAD) and Tatsuya (Arata Iura, ZATOICHI: THE LAST), who founded a motorcycle club called Mugen that grew into an enormous gang, and after Tatsuya was killed they disbanded and five gangs called Sannoh Rengokai (Hoodlum Squad), White Rascals, Oya High, Rude Boys and Daruma Ikka sprung up in their absence, so now the city is divided into five districts and called S.W.O.R.D.
Of course we get flashes of each of these gangs, each with a theme song, and a bunch of the members of each gang with beats and explosions and flames and video game type flying logos, and of course the title of the movie explodes and turns into pistons and then the camera pulls out from a motorcycle engine and drone cameras fly through the city and into people’s eyeballs and memories and shit and almost every one of these things I’ve described is accompanied by a whoooooshhhh or a zzzzzzzrrrrrp or a TCH-KOOOOWWWW!!!.
The two series’ this reminds me of most are THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS and STEP UP, and if there’s any bombastic stylistic show-offery you can think of from those, you can expect it here too. There’s also a similarity in the hyperactive, charmingly obnoxious soundtrack. I have no knowledge of J-Pop, but there’s alot of MORTAL KOMBAT type techno synth with super-duper-over-hyper-studio-polished-and-edited vocals, plus rockin guitars and songs with chants like “Do it now / You gotta make it happen” and even a Japanese cover of House of Pain’s “Jump Around.”
I would be lying if I said I could consistently remember who any of the gangs are except White Rascals, because those guys always dress in all white, generally including fur coats and canes and whatever else exists in the Venn diagram overlap between attendees of the Player’s Ball and what the Backstreet Boys would wear in a video. (At one point they complain about having to pay for dry cleaning after fights.) I don’t think they’re supposed to be pimps, though there could be different ways to interpret their repeated claims that their purpose is to protect women.
Hopefully by now I have somewhat gotten across what this is. I will now attempt to recollect what I understood to be happening. The movie adventure kicks off with a fire bombing in Nameless City (that’s not my name for it, it’s what they call it) where I believe the scruffy parkour gang Rude Boys and/or Oya High live, and then some other gang attacks but there’s a bunch of intrigue about who’s responsible for the fire. It may be be a new gang in town called Mighty Warriors, who are also a rap group who perform at a club called Funk Jungle. Also there’s something to do with some business men assholes called Kuryu Group trying to build a casino. And Mugen founder Kohaku found out Kuryu Group was behind the death of his friend Tatsuya so he’s helping the foreign mafia conquer S.W.O.R.D. so they can then take out the Kuryu Group. So all the gangs have to band together THE WARRIORS style to fight off his forces.
There’s kind of a funny diversity in the cast because of the multiple generations of boy bands. I would not have guessed that Kohaku was played by a pop star – he looks like an action movie guy, and works well as a burly biker. Most of the younger guys wear makeup and very carefully maintained hair dos and outfits and shit, but all of them are treated as equally menacing. The important thing is not how big and tough you look, but how good you are at posing, smirking and cracking your neck.
One way you can tell these guys are pop stars is by how good they are at these group shots where everyone is posing as if for a video or album cover.
I am sorry to note that women are mostly sidelined. There’s an all girl gang or club or music group called STRBRY MLK (or at least that’s what it says on their matching Strawberry Quik colored jackets), and some of them want to participate in the action climax, but their leader Junko (Fujiko Kojima) wants to “wait and see” because “guys prefer that in women.” So with the exception of a few briefly featured fighters, women stay behind at the restaurant to make rice balls and tend to the wounded. I hope and expect this will change in future chapters.
The main appeal of this movie besides its enthusiastic stylistic excess is its modernized and ridiculously exaggerated take on that old ‘50s notion of gang rumbles. It’s like – if you’re in a dance crew you dance, but these guys are in gangs so they rumble. They express themselves through the medium of beating the holy living fuck out of each other, often with metal bats or bottles, but also by jumping off people’s heads and doing flying spin kicks. It’s a weird sort of violence where it seems like at least 300 characters should’ve died during the course of the movie and I’m not sure any did, yet it doesn’t feel bloodless because the hits are hard and things are breaking and faces are getting crunched and at the end everybody is banged up and having a hard time walking.
Director Shigeaki Kubo has only done this movie series, and nothing else that’s listed on IMDb. But the action sequences, which are numerous and long, are out-of-this-world ambitious on a technical level. By the end it’s like a BRAVEHEART sized battle going on on a huge set, with complex martial arts choreography and long camera moves on cranes, following certain characters up and down different levels, with other fights going on in the background. You wonder how the fuck anybody did this, let alone some guys from a boy band. Why don’t we have guys who can do this? Have N’SYNC been holding out on us?
It’s hard to describe how large scale some of these scenes are, even using photos, but here are a few attempts:
And as you can see it kind of looks like it was all filmed on the grounds of a HiGH&LOW theme park. Here’s the area where you would go to get drinks:
Admittedly all this that I’ve described would be enough to hook me on the series. But much like the car and dance related franchises I compared it to earlier, its six sugary layers of ludicrous style and swagger are shellacked around a creamy center of friendship. What really makes it stand out from any other series I know of is that the Manly Emotions levels are absolutely off the charts. I love how much emphasis FAST & FURIOUS puts on family and brotherhood and all that, but that series could never, ever approach the amount of manly crying and hugging in this film.
As much as I love the massive gang battle, the heart of the movie is a more intimate fight between Kohaku and a couple of his former friends. Don’t take this the wrong way – I’m not saying it’s as good or as brutal – but imagine a fight as long and exhausting as the famous Mad Dog fight in THE RAID. But imagine that during the fight the other parties are trying to convince Mad Dog that he should stop what he’s doing because that’s not what he’s about and they care about him and don’t want him to die.
The long history of their relationships come out in flashbacks and new revelations cut into the fight, and I’ll be damned if by the end of it I wasn’t emotionally involved in this thing! You know the only thing I love more than a fight scene is an “I need time to change.” And I also enjoy a Furiosa style silent knee drop of agony.
You can bet that was a conscious FURY ROAD homage, because check out this other shot:
Anyway, this is by far the best martial arts boy band biker gang action soap opera epic I’ve seen lately. I’m excited to have this in my life. I’ll update you all when I watch the next one.
March 16th, 2021 at 10:53 am
This sounds absurd enough to check out, even though J-Pop really bums me out. The Japanese used to make some of the best pop music made anywhere in the world, and now it seems like everyone has agreed that, actually, there is no art to music and we should all just lie to ourselves and pretend that these factory-assembled product lines masquerading as singer-songwriters is all anyone could ever want, so let’s write some think-pieces about how actually people who expect a little more out of the music they support are the real problem here. I hate this shit so much that it will be difficult for me to support this elaborate brand extension masquerading as filmic art but the promise of enormous and ridiculous battles between colorfuly dressed poseurs might be too much for me to resist. Will report back with findings.
Seriously, though, if any of you would like to experience some of the incredible splendor of older Japanese pop, which tended to combine airtight technical chops, soaring soul vocals, laidback grooves, big horns, enigmatic lyrics, and funky motherfucking bass, do youself a favor and disappear down a YouTube rabbit hole. It seems like Mariy Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love” is the gateway drug of choice, but feel free to check out just about anything by the masterful Tatsuro Yamashita, whose every song sounds like Beach Boys by way of Steely Dan and 80s Kool & The Gang. Then there’s Junko Ohashi, a great citypop singer with lots of big hooks. (Actually, you kind of cant wrong just looking for any Japanese citypop playlist.) For older stuff, you can’t go wrong with Tarantino favorite, Lady Snowblood herself, Meiko Keiji. Also check out oldies artist Kyu Sakamoto and any of the Nippon Girls collections for some catchy-as-balls go-go hits.
I mean, check out this jam:
Tatsuro Yamashita - Magic Ways
As far as I know none of these artists know martial arts though so your mileage may vary.