Takeshi Miike returns to helm the second installment of Crows Zero, which is arguably amongst his more mainstream work, based upon the manga by Hiroshi Takahashi. Bringing back almost all the major cast from the first film, one should expect more of the same story of high school violence given the thuggish micro-society amongst the academic community, where it's sans teachers and books, replaced by life's experience though the school of hard knocks (at times literally), coupled with the opening of old wounds and settling them through some good 'ol fisticuffs.
This sequel essentially picked up from where we last left off from the first film, with a prologue that went back some 2 years to set up the introduction of the rival thugs in Hosen Academy, where their leader got gutted by Sho Kawanishi (Shinnosuke Abe) in a cowardly manner against the rules where a weapon was used. Upon Sho's release, he's hunted down by Hosen members, where his flight from punishment landed him onto Suzuran's turf. Given a truce between the two schools, it got quickly broken by a standoff, caused by de-facto current leader Genji Takaya (Shun Oguri). So begins the reason for more action, broken bones and bruised egos in whack-fest sequences.
For those who have not seen the first film, it's not really necessary as you'll be quickly primed into the scheme of things, though those who had will undoubtedly enjoy some more detailed insights as to who the characters are, and their respective motivations. For starters at least, one would have expected Genji to have united Suzuran under his banner, but the truth is far from it. As with most aspects of leadership, respect is earned, not a given, even though you've defeated the biggest bad-ass in school, Tamao Serizawa (Takayuki Yamada). Suzuran is still very fragmented amongst its various levels and cliques, and made worse because of the perceived ineptness of Genji to lead them.
In classic united we stand, divided we fall scenario, Hosen students, in their skin-head motif, bring about some fearful raw energy as they wage war against their rivals. Leading the pack are Taiga (Nobuaki Kaneko) who sports a mean-looking goatee (which for an Arsenal fan like myself, I can't help but to associate his resemblance to Robert Pires), and a Michael Jackson-like character in Ryo (Gou Ayano), with pasty white skin, soft spoken demeanour and an aversion to sunlight (hence the umbrella), but packs quite the wallop when allowed to do his own thing in unleashing mayhem against his opponents.
The fight scenes replicated what has been experienced in the earlier installment, and I suppose even those who are new to this may find it a little repetitive at times although the fights are more realistically designed sans impossible leaps and superhuman powers, save for some unbelievable endurance of the combatants. In the finale battle for instance, which lasted some more than 20 minutes of screen time, brought out an interesting, battle-to-the-top scenario as attacks come wave after wave, which is kinda smart as it gave the various characters ample opportunity to show off their moves and abilities to hold their own ground. Miike, for all his morbidity infused in various genre films in his filmography, again chose not to include unnecessary blood and gore,
Fans of Meisa Kuroki (like *ahem*, myself) may take some delight in having the idol appear in all but 3 different scenes, 2 of which are spent consoling Genji, and one performing on stage at the pub (like what she did in the first film), though this time round it's a rather tame and shortened version of Bad Girl (those of you who have seen that music video, will know what I mean). But hey, at least Miike brought her back, so no complaints I guess. The soundtrack is again amply peppered with pop-rock music, and the main theme just accentuates perfectly the proud swagger each time the characters band together to battle. You can't help but feel that it's arse-kicking time, each time the theme comes on, cliché as this technique may be in inducing you to swell with pride as if you too are wearing a Suzuran badge.
Crows Zero II may seem like a rehash of the first film, but under different circumstances. The key subplot here involved Sho's attempt to reintegrate back into the society he knows, which is very similar to ex-convicts seeking a second chance at forgiveness after a major wrong. Other than that, there's very little emoting by the characters, or what passed as emoting in Genji's moping of why he's still pretty much the loner despite being Suzuran's top dog, and Serizawa being very much a shadow of his first film self, waiting menacingly in the wings in threatening take over looks, but very much more like the fallen hero awaiting an opportunity for a comeback. I guess fame and power doesn't account for anything especially when you belong to the same house. While the first film was essentially an ego trip for the protagonists in gaining and holding onto turf and reputation, this one rang home the importance of banding together and putting aside differences and ego for the greater good and survivability.
Thankfully the action sequences get interspersed and are brutally solid throughout, which naturally is the draw of this fantasy film. It's surprising too that for all the simplicity in its storyline, it still managed to extend itself to more than two hours, which flew by especially when you're having fun as observers to major fights. The perfect antidote after a stressful day at work (besides hitting those kickboxing gym classes)!