Dangan Runner (Japan, 1996)

When pushed to the brink, men will do anything. No extremes are off-limits once the event horizon has been crossed, when they have snapped at the words and actions of those around them. William Foster reached this. Not everyone, however, is as psychopathic as Michael Douglas’ character in Falling Down (1993), and not everyone is as capable at achieving his results. Some are bungling buffoons, truly as inept as the seemingly vicious snipes made by the spectators closing in on their manliness. Yasuda is one such man: every awkwardly hilarious and hilariously awkward frame of his entire botching of an attempted bank robbery is caught in tremendously guerrilla fashion in V-Cinema’s oft-overlooked gem; a cult classic from an age that not only saved Japanese cinema but helped catapult it once again on the world stage, making eventual household names out of Takashi Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Hideo Nakata amongst others. Now, thanks to Third Window Films, Sabu’s directorial debut Dangan Runner will run amok once again for a whole new audience.

After being ridiculed romantically and by his colleagues, Yasuda (Tomoro Taguchi) plans to pull off a bank heist, but upon forgetting his mask, desperately fails to steal one from a convenience store. This triggers a bizarre chain of events starting with the store’s clerk – washed-up rock star and drug addict Aizawa (Diamond Yuki) – chasing the hapless would-be robber. The two bump into conflicted yakuza Takeda (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi) who serves as the link between his assailants as well as the brewing gang war between his and a rival clan and the gun-obsessed cops hot on their trail. Our trio of losers embark on an inner-city chase, which lasts throughout the span of the film’s running time and seemingly loses all sense of purpose as the film marathons towards its violent and converging climax.

Whilst it adheres to elements of the popular yakuza genre Sabu’s film ‘borrows’ traits from other uniquely Japanese genres, including pinku eiga – a rather erotic dream sequence shared by our down-and-out chasers as they cross paths with an attractive female – whilst making effective use of the low-budget guerrilla cinematography and editing used to great effect in Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and other such films. Parallels to Run Lola Run have been made (1998) and such comparison is well deserved regarding the postmodern nature thriving within this microverse. Full of energy in its infancy whilst taking time to introduce its cast of misfits – the initial chase between Yasuda and Aizawa is exhilarating to watch – which it does perfectly, Dangan Runner slowly begins to mirror the realities of a long-distance race. As exhaustion and delirium begin to kick in, all reason seems to be lost by both the cast and the audience. What stops the film spiralling into tedium is the collective abilities of all involved in keeping this entertaining and wildly amusing; Yukai’s drug-crazed demeanour is a sight to behold, and the delusions of grandeur silently brewing within the cops and the gangsters perfectly hits all the rights spots in well-timed breathers from the main attraction.

This side-plot, stemming from the murdering of Takeda’s boss and partner which he failed to prevent, does at times feel like a comedic afterthought – Sabu has revealed he had to “pad out” the film as it was decided the initial runtime was too short. Although this part of the story comes across as hackneyed, with as much strength as a recently stitched-together corpse, its characters are the right level of crazy to allow this to drag the film down. They all play a pivotal role in the tying up of the film’s many loose ends and, much like the three leads, it is their non-verbal, physical comedy which helps keep the audience invested until the very end.

Just like his more famous counterparts, Sabu manages to bring out the best of his cast as well as his technical crew. The film’s pacing is spot on throughout and its music/sound design makes us feel right at home in this very DIY-era of Japanese cinema’s history. One could argue that, overall, Dangan Runner feels very allegorical of the decade: a country and its rich cinematic culture is an overflowing cauldron of energy but as the decade soldiers on past the economic boom (and towards the Asian recession of 1997) it loses steam, focus, and drive until a ragtag group of young misfits become the new faces of a system looking to turn the tide. Unlike its three leads, that new sense of self-accomplishment actually goes noticed by the larger forces of power, triggering off a whole new wave of global appreciation.

Over twenty years since its birth, Dangan Runner finally lands a Western release. Although the films of Miike, Kurosawa, and Nakata having enjoyed distribution for more than a decade now, it is never too late for a film like this to finally see the light of day. Packaged with a new interview with Sabu plus a quick yet insightful introduction to V-Cinema and its legacy by the legendary Tom Mes, Third Window Films’ release helps put the director’s debut into the larger concept of Japanese cinema. It’s not just a release for academics or historians, though. Whilst not as violent or as creepy as some of his contemporaries’ output, Sabu’s work is a hilarious holy grail of low-budget filmmaking and a vital piece of V-Cinema history, one that will undoubtedly appeal to cult enthusiasts everywhere.

Dangan Runner is available on dual format DVD & Blu-ray on November 12 from Third Window Films.