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Friday, March 5, 2010

'Gekijo-ban Kenka Bancho: Zenkoku Seiha'

Punks cruise for the old bruising


Fights were a spectator sport at my rural Pennsylvania high school. One guy would call out another and after classes the combatants would square off on a patch of ground outside school property, surrounded by a circle of friends and hangers-on. The typical finish was the victor straddling the prostrate loser and pounding him into submission. Not very sophisticated, martial-arts-wise, but this was before Bruce Lee, not to mention Sonny Chiba.

Gekijo-ban Kenka Bancho: Zenkoku Seiha Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
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MOVIES
Get a grip: Yuji Ayabe in "Gekijo-ban Kenka Bancho: Zenkoku Seiha" © 2010 SPIKE / "KENKA BANCHO GEKIJOBAN" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Takeshi Tokairin
Running time: 94 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens March 6, 2010
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Watching Takeshi Tokairin's "Gekijo-ban Kenka Bancho: Zenkoku Seiha" ("Fighting Gang Bosses: National Champion"), the latest entry in the thriving subgenre of films about battling bad boys, I realized that we lacked more than kung fu skills. We didn't have a bancho, which translates as "juvenile gang boss," but can also mean, as the film shows, the toughest guy in school, the prefecture — or Japan.

Based on a PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable game series, the film is, like many game-to -movie adaptations, light on story, heavy on action. But director Tokairin and scriptwriter Takeshi Miyamoto succeed in transforming at least a few of the game's avatars into recognizable teens (or rather punks), while leavening the endless butt whoopings with gags that range from the silly to the blackly clever.

This was also the formula of Hiroshi Shinagawa's surprise hit "Drop" ( 2009), as well as Takeshi Miike's two "Crows Zero" films (2007 and 2009), though Miike went further in the direction of epic action — "Braveheart" with ball bats instead of swords. "Kenka Bancho," however, takes more of an RPG (role-playing game) approach, turning its two-fisted hero, Takashi Sakamoto (Yuji Ayabe), into an audience stand-in.

Though hardly a hulk, Takashi is the bancho of his rough provincial high school. When he comes to Tokyo for a class trip, he is mistaken for Onizawa (Tomohito Wakizaki), the bancho of all of Ibaraki Prefecture, by punks who are cruising, as we used to say, for a bruising

From these, um, acquaintances, Takashi learns that the top bancho from 47 prefectures are gathering in Tokyo to contest for the title of all-Japan Numero Uno. Naturally, anything goes outside of murder. In fact, there is no tournament as such — just punks roaming the streets and picking fights or being cornered and stomped by members of a rival alliance.

Most ruthless of all are the punks from Ikeda High School in Kyoto. Their fearsome bancho (Rui Yamada) is a walking block of granite in a powder-blue uniform who spends his waking hours either lifting weights or cracking heads. Onizawa wants Takashi to help him protect Tokyo from the depredations of the Ikeda barbarians. Meanwhile, Takashi's cute classmate Manami (Erika Yazawa) wants to keep him out of trouble — and on the road to romance.

For Takashi, a born brawler, the choice is simple, especially after Onizawa, by now a pal, is captured and creatively tortured by Ikeda thugs. But how can he and his smart-mouthed sidekick Sawakita (Genki Okawa) beat the Ikeda coalition, with its overwhelming numbers?

Takashi turns out to be short on strategy, relying instead on his guts and fists. This makes for some improbable David-vs.-Goliath contests, presented with the now-standard "Saving Private Ryan" strobing that makes the action feel slo-mo and unreal. Also, after being introduced with an on-screen title that gives their name and prefecture, most of the bancho fighters fade back into the woodwork — or fall writhing to the floor.

But Ayabe, of the manzai (comic duo) Peacer, is the real, if under-sized, fighting deal as Takashi. The electrical bolts that leap out of his angry eyes are, not just a funny effect, but an expression of Takashi's charged-up character.

Tokairin, a veteran effects specialist, layers in some sly visual jokes. When a character poses in front of the Asahi Beer headquarters his hair matches the famous so-called "golden poo" sculpture on its roof. Also, when a bancho brawl at a women's pro-wrestling match surges into the ring the two contestants and referee cower comically in the corner. Think the T-Rex invasion of the dino museum in "Jurassic Park," with the human "visitors" fleeing for their lives.

"Kenka Bancho" is more for core genre fans, as well as "Kenka Bancho" gamers, than ordinary punters expecting a normal movie. It's primary value is as stress relief — or revenge fantasy. I know people I'd like to zap with the eyeball lightening bolts — assuming they have fewer volts than I do.


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