The overworked genre of the Japanese yakuza (gangster) movie gets a fresh spin in “Kamikaze Taxi,” a consistently arresting blend of road movie, explosive bursts of gangland violence and dry wit, with a sociopolitical edge. Cutting by half anhour would sharpen the focus and ease arthouse chances offshore, where with careful nursing the pic could attract a small cult following. This is definitely not your average navel-gazing, fest-grazing Japanese indie.
Pic starts in seemingly docu style with filmed interviews with Japanese who were born and raised overseas and have returned to their “native” country, effectively as second-class citizens. Though the viewer doesn’t realize it at the time, one of the speakers is Kantake (Koji Yakusho), a cab driver raised in Peru who still speaks Japanese in pidgin style. He is to become the third side of a unique dramatic triangle, conjoining reps of three social groups that rarely crisscross: Japan’s 150,000 foreign-raised citizens, its 90,000 yakuza and, according to an opening title, “a few politicians who distort historical facts.”
Main story starts with trainee yakuza Tatsuo (Kazuya Takahashi) given a chance to prove himself by pimping for an aging politician. But the girl, Tama (Reiko Kataoka), is badly beaten up, prompting the angry Tatsuo to go solo early in his career. Gathering a group of kids his own age, he leads a chaotic robbery on the politico’s home, where Tama has told him there’s a $ 2 million stash in a pot.
The neophyte gang is soon tracked down by its vicious boss, Animal (Mickey Curtis), but Tatsuo escapes with the money and sets out on an odyssey in which, by chance, he hooks up with cabby Kantake. Rest of the movie sees the two men gradually bonding, later joining up with Tama, and Kantake finally taking over the role of avenging angel for Tatsuo in an extraordinary one-man assault on the corrupt politico’s home.
Though the film could easily lose a quarter of an hour from a self-indulgent sequence in a group-therapy clinic, there’s actually very little slackness during the 170-minute running time. Characters gradually gain accretions of detail that make them richer as the drama unfolds, and, aside from specific issues like corrupt politicians or the effective disenfranchisement of “foreigners” like Kantake, there’s a sweeping dramatic arc to the movie that’s almost epic in scope, with plenty of surprises and new revelations along the way.
Middle-generation helmer Masato Harada, best known for the live-action manga “Gunhed” and more recent fest item “Painted Desert,” takes a huge leap here and lands with consummate skill.
Perfs are varied and sharply drawn, from Takahashi’s initially cocky yakuza through Yakusho’s quiet but inwardly strong cabby (gradually revealed as the main character in the drama) to Curtis’ smiling psychotic. Tech credits are consistently good-looking, from sun-filled country scenes to neon-lit night sequences, and the violence and gunplay strikingly staccato and shocking.