The live-action adaptation of manga properties in Japanese cinema is just as popular and frequent as Hollywood’ s thirst to translate comic book tales originating from DC, Marvel and lesser-known publishers in North America. Both come with their share of trials and tribulations, such as what to leave in, what to leave out, and what to change in order to smoothen the transition from the page to the silver screen. The Crows series — which began with 2007’s Crows Zero, was followed by 2009’s Crows Zero 2, and continues with this year’s Crows Explode — is in a special situation considering the change in directorial talent handling each entry. The first two were guided by the crazy genius that is Takashi Miike (which is completely normal considering the premise), whereas the latest entry is shepherded by Toshiaki Toyoda.
Chronologically set between the first and second films, Explode follows the misadventures of an entirely new batch of students struggling to reign supreme on the grounds of Suzuran All-Boys High School. The method of choice to gain respect and followers at this particular academy is not through the typical athletics or shameless popularity contests, however. Nay, the boys at Suzuran command devotion of others by pummeling their rivals into the ground in a series of contests between the various gangs hoping to claim top spot. Two new arrivals, both troubled transfer students named Kaburagi Kazeo (Masahiro Higashide) and Kagami Ryohei (Taichi Saotome), make an early impression with their fearsome strength. It isn’t long before the gang leaders try to lure them into pledging allegiance. Try as each might to resist towing the school ground lines, both are inexorably drawn into the fray and become fierce rivals themselves.
There definitely must be something in what Japanese genre film fans enjoy watching on screen for there to be a number of films involving either children or teenagers whose main goal is to kill or maim one another in titanic, melodramatic contests of the fittest. The most popular and controversial entry till this day remains Battle Royale from 2000, which stirred the cinematic passions of some whilst revolting others. Shift ahead a mere 14 years and it feels a little bit odd how much more accepting audiences are of brash, perhaps even crass premises such as the one in a movie like Crows Explode. Interestingly enough, the film only appears crass on the surface. What Toshiaki Toyoda and the collection of screenwriters tasked with penning this third entry accomplish is actually injecting a modicum of pathos and worthy character relationships that successfully reflect the emotionally trying lives of these soon to be adults struggling to find themselves in a society that doesn’t think much of them. In other words, it is earnestness packaged in genre flair.
No one will argue that Crows Explode is an exemplary cinematic display of brilliantly woven drama, but give credit where credit is due. It must be said that the filmmakers demonstrate some care and affection for these ruffians with more sensitive sides to them than meets the eye. Some of these youths, in particular the comical trio who somehow form a bond with the stand-offish Kazeo, are really just looking for a new friend. Kazeo hesitates to reciprocate their affection and while he never transforms into a lovable lug, he eventually gives in to the simple yet touchy subject of showing feelings of love and friendship in a machismo world. It may be expressed in his own idiosyncratic fashion but he does somewhat relent by the end. While the machinations to build drama and a dash of comedy are by no means groundbreaking, they are handled well enough to give the movie a bit of a lift amidst all the posturing and gleeful violence. Without those touches, Crows Explode might still have been fun but would have lacked that extra something to make it complete.
As for the contests themselves, director Toyoda and his team capably construct a series of encounters that justly balance the idea of youths who have experience with fighting yet are not trained fighters themselves. The most apt way to describe the battles would be as brawls. They’re a bit on the messy side, but these hoodlums clearly have been in a healthy few and are therefore capable of ducking away from of a good swing and landing a knockout blow too. It doesn’t make for the most intricately choreographed ballets, like those other martial arts films pride themselves on, but serves its own purpose nonetheless. Had the students been capable of Jackie Chan-like stunts, the entire ordeal would have been even less believable than it already is (among the questions that spring to mind is why are these kids never in class? What do they even study?). As it stands, the battles are solid fun and just varied enough to avoid slipping into boredom by the climax.
Following in the footsteps of Takashi Miike is a frightfully unenviable position to find oneself in. Outdoing him in terms of audaciousness is a ludicrous goal to aim for, as few ever could. Even so, director Toyoda offers a rather strong piece of entertainment that bizarrely finds a middle ground between telling an overarching story of misguided teenagers, who view beating each other to a pulp as a viable technique to socialize, and delving into their more troubled personal lives, thus providing the picture with a speck of gravitas. What’s more, the film looks very handsome; further indication that the filmmakers took this premise quite seriously and wanted to give audiences the best picture possible. Crows Explode is a strange mix of ingredients but disproves the odds. It might not be the king of the heap, but prince is not a bad second place.
— Edgar Chaput