It took a while, but the latest instalment in the Crows franchise (Crows Zero, Crows Zero II) has finally arrived. This third film takes a fresh start, with a new story arc and a new director to keep things from going stale. While this is usually bad news for a film series, Crows Explode [Kurozu Explode] isn't just a quick cash-in or a lazy compromise to please some hardened fanboys, instead director Toyoda picks up where Miike left off and goes out of his way to make the material his own.
Those only familiar with Toshiaki Toyoda's later films (I'm Flash, Monsters Club, Yomigaeri no Chi) may be wondering how he ended up directing a film like this, but long-time Toyoda fans will fondly remember Aoi Haru, which is basically a Crows film avant la lettre. When Toyoda was announced as the follow-up to Miike, I quickly tossed aside all my earlier reservations and started looking forward to this latest addition to the series.
If you're not familiar with the Crows series this might not be the best place to start. Even though the references to the first two films are fairly limited, the setting and characters might take some getting used to. Schools run by gangs fighting their way to the top are not uncommon in Japanese fiction, but outside of Japan it's not something you'll come across very often. Apart from WaSanGo (a South-Korean film obviously rooted in Japanese culture) I can't really name another non-Japanese film that has a similar setup. It's probably better to start with films like Sakigake!! Kuromati Koko: The Movie (comedy) or Ai to Makoto (crazy Miike musical/drama) or possibly even Toyoda's own Aoi Haru before moving on to the Crows series.
This third instalment sees a new generation of fighters challenge their seniors at Suzuran High School, while fighting off the leading clan of a neighbouring school. To make things even more explosive, one of the school's graduates has joined a local Yakuza gang and is using Yakuza muscle to take revenge on his old enemies. So instead of only having to worry about each other, they now have to face a range of even more powerful enemies. At the same time, Kaburagi, an enigmatic young transfer student, is rising through the ranks to make a name for himself.
Toyoda's visual style is a pretty good match for the foundation Miike laid in the first two films. The grim surroundings, dominated by run-down concrete buildings, trash and graffiti are grey and depressing, but still rich in details. Even the weather adapts, as thick clouds and icy snow contribute richly to the reigning atmosphere. The indoor scenes in a nearby bar are a nice escape from this cold, desolate environment, though even there the fighting continues. Camera work and editing are solid, the explicit styling of the different gang members also deserves an extra mention.
These high school punks are all about rock and roll, something Toyoda welcomes with open arms. Whenever the film switches back to the bar a different rock group is performing on stage, which makes the inclusion of some existing bands less forced compared to other films. Even though the music itself isn't what I consider great, Toyoda has a way with music that sets up the mood and helps to bring a scene to a climax. I wouldn't listen to the soundtrack outside of the film, but as part of Crows Explode it works wonders.
Not too many famous faces in Crows Explode, but there's a lot of energy among the actors and the cast clearly had a lot of fun on set. Masahiro Higashide is a good lead, Ryo Katsuji a perfect second in command. There are no real weak links, though it must be said that the styling of the characters makes up half the performance. Most actors don't have that much work besides standing still and appearing to be as menacing as possible, but at least they're pretty good at it.
Fans of the manga have been very vocal about the fact that the film doesn't follow the storyline of the comics. Instead a completely new arc was written especially for this film. I haven't read the manga so I don't really care, but it's good to be aware of these fanboy issues when reading other reviews online. There is nothing really wrong with the plot of this film, even though it's clearly not the main focus. Crows Explode is all about the school gang world with its colorful protagonists and that's where the film shines.
Toyoda made an impeccable sequel to Miike's first two films. Crows Explode is not a film that transcends its genre or background, but it's a fun, energetic and aptly made niche film that perfectly captures the setting and its characters. It's a film that stands well on its own, though watching Miike's films first is definitely recommended, if only to get acquainted with the setting and unique culture of the battling school gangs. Miike's films are a tad lighter of tone, Toyoda's one is a bit more serious, apart from that they are equally well-made and amusing.