I’ve always found Japanese culture to be intriguing, not by what’s “out there” but rather by what’s hidden “under the surface.” And oh my, there are just so much under the surface when it comes to Japanese society, many of which I have never seen addressed, or even spoken of, in their mainstream movies. Which leads me to say that Masato Harada’s Kamikaze Taxi is definitely not your standard Japanese movie.
The hero at the heart of Kamikaze Taxi is Tatsuo (Kazuya Takahashi), a young Yakuza (Japanese mob) footsoldier. Tatsuo is a self-described punk, born to be a pain in someone’s ass. He’s never known his father and his mother died when he was very young, and it’s his lifelong wish to buy a new tombstone for her grave. Let’s just say that when Tatsuo gets it into his head to do something then by God he’s going to finish it come hell or high water.
That type of mindless determination comes in handy when Tatsuo’s girlfriend and another hooker are sent to be company to a corrupt senator. Both girls end up brutally tortured by the senator, which doesn’t sit well with Tatsuo’s girlfriend, who goes off on the mob boss who subsequently orders her death. Tatsuo just happened to be there to witness his girlfriend’s execution. It goes without saying that the headstrong Tatsuo doesn’t take the murder of his girlfriend lying down.
Kamikaze Taxi quickly earns its title. After he and his childhood buddies-turn-accomplices rob the senator, Tatsuo flees into the countryside, leaving behind a trail of bodies — most of which belongs to his buddies. Tatsuo soon runs into Kantake (Koji Yakusho), a Peruvian-Japanese who has recently immigrated back to the country for work. The two form an unlikely bond, and eventually takes on father-son roles. Kantake proves to be an invaluable ally in Tatsuo’s quest to take out the mob and the senator and everyone else who gets in his way. You see, the young fellow has gotten it into his head to go on one last Kamikaze suicide run before they get him ala the Kamikaze pilots of World War II.
Along the way the duo picks up Tama, the other half of the hookers tortured by the senator. Tama and Tatsuo end up playing sister and brother to Kantake’s father. It’s one big dysfunctional family, but it’s all they got. The sense of desperation oozes from every pore on the trio. Koji Yakusho (Cure) shows tremendous range as the Japanese immigrant who can’t read or speak proper Japanese, and who harbors a deadly past.
Through the Kantake and senator characters, writer/director Masato Harada tackles the delicate subject of foreigners in Japan, and Japan’s unspoken-but-always-there xenophobia. It’s quite remarkable to see such a direct and unobtrusive condemnation of Japanese politics and attitudes, in particular the Japanese war of aggression during World War II. Just for good measure, Harada even brings to the table the embarrassing topic of comfort women — that is, women who were enslaved by the Japanese Imperial Army to “service” their soldiers during World War II. To this day, the Japanese refuse to apologize to their Asian neighbors.
The movie is, at its core, a microscope on the Japanese establishment. The corrupt senator and the Yakuza are in bed, so deeply involved that they blend, and the crooks and politicians thus become one indistinguishable entity. They are, in essence, the “system” and Tatsuo and Kantake are the wrenches in the machine.
Koji Yakusho is the driving force of the film, and I can’t stress enough what a good job he does. Kazuya Takahashi (Tatsuo) is also good as the punk with more brass than brains. Harada handles the two men’s scenes perfectly, and the eventual evolution of their relationship is treated with adult hands. Tama (Reiko Kataoka) forms the last angle of the unlikely trio, and the actress is outstanding as the anything-goes hooker who ends up actually caring not only for those around her, but for herself for the first time in her life.
Kamikaze Taxi is a violent film, with some very violent moments. The Yakuza villains are given more characterization than usual. Even the mob boss, who orders the death of Tatsuo’s girlfriend without batting an eye, has some human traits. Sometimes we even care about him. Sometimes.
What could have used some polish is the movie’s cinematography. Harada and cinematographer Yoshitaka Sakamoto sometimes have trouble with night scenes, and the movie’s filmstock leaves a lot to be desired. The film is covered with “cigarette burns” on the edges and the camera sometimes makes the scenes too hard to read.
None of the above deters Kamikaze Taxi from being an exceptional film that brings some difficult topics to light. It’s definitely not something you’ve seen before in your “normal Japanese film” and that’s the whole point.
Masato Harada (director) / Masato Harada (screenplay)
CAST: Koji Yakusho …. Kantake
Kazuya Takahashi …. Tatsuo
Reiko Kataoka …. Tama
Taketoshi Naito …. Domon
Mickey Curtis …. Animal
Kenichi Yajima …. Ishida