Sion Sono’s youth saga Hazard begins with the voice of a never-identified narrator explaining that this is, ‘the trivial true story of some Japanese after the economic bubble burst’ while three young men run down a rain-swept New York street in slow-motion with a police car following close behind. The events of Hazard take place in 1991 and revolve around the efforts of 20-year-old college student Shin (Jo Odagiri) to break free of the perceived constraints of Japanese society by abandoning his education to relocate to the United States. Feeling ‘sleepy but restless’ in Japan, Shin is browsing books and periodicals in the college library travel section when he comes across a copy of Hazards in New York, part of a series devoted to the world’s most dangerous destinations. Skimming the blurb he learns that New York has the highest crime rate in the world, but it is the word ‘hazard’ which really captures his attention and imagination. After arriving in New York, he is ecstatic about acquiring a T-shirt with ‘Hazard’ printed on it from a street seller, but less pleased to encounter racism, then to have his possessions stolen by a pair of African-American hustlers who initially behave as if they are going to show him a good time. Alone and broke, Shin is about to shoplift a snack from a convenience store when he encounters Lee (Jai West), a Japanese-American, and his sidekick Takeda (Motoki Fusumi); Lee appears to be a highly excitable entrepreneur – complete with eager-to-please employees and a great apartment – but is actually a criminal whose main source of income is selling ‘speedball’ ice-cream to neighbourhood junkies from a truck with a ‘Kool Man’ logo. However, he is humanised somewhat through the bond he develops with Shin – mostly while teaching his new friend English by using Walt Whitman – and the enthusiasm that he exhibits for life in general, even if his energies are misdirected. The subsequent activities of these three youths may be ‘trivial’, but they are also not entirely without consequence.
Considering that Hazard captures a certain milieu with such immediacy, and comments so explicitly on the appeal of the United States to frustrated Japanese youths left adrift in society due to economic slowdown, it is surprising that Sono’s screenplay evolved from a rather different piece of material by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, with Sono’s eventual shooting script having nothing to do with the initial draft. Hazard actually began as a screenplay about a real-life S&M murder that occurred in the Gotanda neighbourhood of Tokyo, with some scenes involving the main character reminiscing about his youthful experiences in New York. Arriving in the Big Apple to scout locations for the flashback scenes, Sono was so inspired by his surroundings – he strongly associated New York with urban danger due to viewings of Martin Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver (1976) – that he decided to set the entire film there, jettisoning the S&M murder in favour of the eventual coming-of-age story. Shooting quickly and cheaply without permits, Sono documents Shin’s search for ‘hazard’ with hand-held urgency as New York becomes a stomping ground for his pent-up frustration, offering ample opportunities for an Asian youth assimilation of the ‘American Dream’ as informed by movies, music videos and PlayStation games. Lee, Shin and Takeda pull grocery store hold-ups not because they need the money, but because it gives them a thrill, risking being apprehended by the police or shot by angry store-owners by stealing apple juice, candy bars and potato chips. During a stand-off with a Chinese gang, Lee tells Shin that, ‘this is your tour package and I’m your guide’, with the film having the feel of a drug-fuelled travelogue as Sono alternates drug deals and hold-ups with dreamlike montages that show the trouble-loving trio in more relaxed mood, ruminating on the reason for their stance towards society as dawn breaks over downtown.
Even though Sono has style to spare, Hazard would struggle to maintain interest beyond the thirty-minute mark if his cast were not able to provide their characters with sufficient shading. Odagiri would specialise in directionless youths for some time, most notably the mischievous restroom attendant in Scrap Heaven (2005) and the debt-burdened student in Adrift in Tokyo (2007), but his performance here is particularly impressive as Odagiri taps into Shin’s introverted nature while showing flashes of the social menace that is on the verge of breaking out. As the character of Lee is required to provide the template for Shin’s transformation, West is suitably wild and unpredictable, but finds quieter moments that show the philosophy that lies beneath the bluster, while Fusumi explores the insecurity that causes Takeda to get into street fights but also prevents him from being able to ask his dream girl out on a date. Backstories for Lee and Fusumi are not provided, but this suits Sono’s vision of young people living in the moment and the actors embrace this aspect of their characters by delivering performances which sometimes seem improvised, although Sono has insisted that Hazard was tightly scripted. With his combination of aptitude and attitude, Lee is the embodiment of Americanised youth in revolt, a by-product of a free society that offers temptation on tap which 1990s Japan was just catching up with. As such, Shin returns to Tokyo, and walks through Shibuya to find that the underworld needs someone with his overseas experience and outlook if it is to evolve into an empire with a genuine ethos. However, this closing scene at Shibuya lacks the stylistically-heightened exuberance of the New York opening, indicating that the events that have ensured Shin’s metamorphosis from dissatisfied college student to underworld-lord-in-waiting have been filtered through a nostalgic lens. As an unapologetically excessive commentary on Japanese youth-in-revolt, Hazard ultimately offers more questions than answers, but in-keeping with its central character’s headlong pursuit of experience, it certainly makes for visceral viewing.