Sogo Ishii’s Crazy Thunder Road begins with a smoking volcano, and a fallen motorbike. These opening images in fact come from the film’s chronological end, and between them one can discern the principal arc of its narrative, as the irrepressible eruption of protagonist Jin (Tatsuo Yamada) leads inevitably to his – and others’ – doom. To Jin, it is always better to go out in an explosive blaze of glory than merely to burn out, and so this feature embodies the very spirit of live fast, die young.
Insolent, recalcitrant Jin heads the ominously named ‘Kamikaze’ crew of the Maboroshi (or ‘Phantoms’) motorcycle gang, independently enacting vicious guerrilla attacks on other gangs. Yet the Mabaroshi’s leader Ken (Koji Nanjō) is straightening up his act and settling down with Noriko (Michiko Kitahara). “Guess I’m getting old,” Ken tells her, via outmoded intertitles which underline his obsolescence. In parallel to this serious new relationship, Ken is also entering an alliance with the other gangs. In other words, he is leaving behind childish things.
Jin, however, refuses to play ball or to acquiesce in any way to growing up, and so persuades the rest of the Kamikazes – and the conflicted Shigeru (Masashi Kojima) – to go rogue with him on a suicidal mission against, well, everyone else. With the stakes rising and consequences coming to call, Jin is left not only grievously injured but also increasingly isolated in his rebellious outbursts, even as all the other gangsters move on and grow up, either joining the police force or getting into bed (literally, in Shigeru’s case) with an ultra-nationalist paramilitary group led by the (significantly) older military veteran Tadashi (Hiroshi Kaiya).
When Jin takes his last ultraviolent stand, it is hardly a coincidence that he is joined in his heavily armed campaign by an actual child (albeit a street kid who sells drugs and injects heroin). For Jin is not only taking revenge against the many foes that he has made along the way, but also quixotically resisting the gravitational forces of adulthood itself. Sickened by the order and authoritarianism of grown-up life, Jin is a punkish Peter Pan taking one final chaotic ride under the banner of rebellious youth, and Crazy Thunder Road both celebrates and instantiates Jin’s unruly exuberance through Ishii’s kinetic, cut-up style of filmmaking.
Indeed, Jin and Ishii are driven by a similarly fierce independence. For much as Jin operates solo, beyond the control of the gang to which he belongs, and then of the military cadre that he joins merely to pick up fighting skills, Ishii himself was a practitioner of jishu eiga, or low-budget amateur films made entirely outside of the studio system. Shot for peanuts on 16mm, Crazy Thunder Road was Ishii’s film school graduation project at Nihon University, but extraordinarily was then picked up by Toei Studios, restruck on 35mm and released in cinemas. (The studio previously had Ishii’s no-budget first film,