In 2009, director Yu Irie planted a strange landmark alongside the road of Japanese cinema. It was the beginning of the 8,000 Miles series, a strange mash up of youthful, locally flavored protagonists interacting in stories that move along at a slacker’s pace, filled with long interludes of hiphop freestyling. These offbeat rhythmic exchanges came up as conversational interactions between characters more often than they did as actual performances. Episodes meandered along towards points that were not really conclusions, but rather stops along the way for the series’ 3 constants: a trio of amateur rappers going under the collective name Shogung (MC Ikku, MC Mighty, MC Tom) dreaming of big time success.
Its third installment, ROADSIDE FUGITIVE offers some more of same, yet not without some changes. This time out, it’s a darker, more grown up vision than the previous films. There is a bigger budget, which allowed for an interlude that takes place in a slick, yet vilifying vision of Tokyo. The outset takes us back to where the first film left off as Mighty bids farewell to partners MC's Ikku and Tom, deciding to head for the electric lights of Tokyo to try to make it big on his own. We fast forward to Mighty working as a kind of roadie, but really more of an indentured slave, for a Tokyo based hiphop unit Gokuakucho (among it’s ranks is actor Akihiro Kitamura of Human Centipede victim infamy). He does all of their bidding under the pretense of paying dues before being given a chance to show his stuff on stage.
An opportunity to enter a freestyle MC battle presents itself (it’s the same kind of rap battle you may know from the Eminem biopic 8 Mile) and Mighty quickly rises to the top of a heap of young MC’s. As the tournament approaches its conclusion, Mighty is suddenly given an unexpected directive to fall short of victory in the finals because his opponent to be is part of a more established crew that will share an event with Mighty’s crew. The conflicted up and comer begrudgingly opts for loyalty to his crew and tosses away the competition. Things only get worse. His crew disowns him in front of another group, the same one whose member he laid down for in the freestyle tournament. On top of that, they deny him a previously promised spot on stage that night.
At this point, it may seem like the makings of a great tale of redemption. Perhaps Mighty will persevere against stacked odds to battle the members of these crews and prove his mettle as an MC. But the 8,000 Mile series continues to stubbornly steer clear of a linear path. The incident leads to a violent outburst on the part of Mighty, thus sending him on the road and establishing him as the fugitive of the movie’s title.
Another flash forward, and Mighty is in more familiar territory, somewhere in the sticks far removed from glamorous Tokyo. Although free of the bullying and disrespect he experienced in Tokyo, here he finds himself hooked up with a different brand of thug, but thugs all the same, ripping off cars to resell as scrap, amidst other seedy activity. Mighty finds himself in one of their good graces and is charged with organizing entertainment for an outdoor festival. This becomes the playing field on which the rest of the movie’s exploits are carried out.
Reenter Tom and Ikku. Not ones to miss out on any opportunity to achieve fame, they are among several teens and twenty-somethings trying out for a spot on stage at the festival. It’s all good rhyming and flexing until even this local showcase proves to be more of a pocket lining scam than a genuine effort to put on a great show. In keeping in line with the rest of the film’s flow, there is still no one major conflict or challenge to rally around. Shogung join forces with some similarly raggedy juvenile counterparts to make a live festival appearance materialize while Mighty’s troublesome rage again surfaces as he and his girlfriend’s integrity are compromised and money pressures rear their head. The drama in the lives of these young upstarts orbit around one another as vulture-like threats (even the tyrannical rappers from the Tokyo scene reappears) form ever tightening circles and a sweaty carnivalesque summer festival lurches into gear.
While the film can feel bit all over the place, the vibrant rap interludes and director Irie’s skill at capturing movement, be it in the shiny Tokyo scenes or the more crudely shot festival sequences near its conclusion. Even without a clear direction, Irie knows how to steer things in such a way that it’s compelling to see what is going to come next.
Here a subjective conversation is due about the decidedly grim direction. For films that explicitly set out to expose audiences to injustices of the world, it’s fine. For this more character driven film, I’m not sure. Its world is one where those older and more powerful lord whatever influence they have, even when it is slight, to exploit a younger, hopeful generation. The petty criminals in Roadside Fugitive rip off, bully, and goad into degrading acts like prostitution, the generations that have come after. Resistance to these powers that be, never mind overcoming them, is sadly absent. The protagonists play the games by the unfairly loaded rules until they crack under pressure. This didn’t quite work for me, coming from a genre that could potentially deliver the hope and sense of uplifting that often comes from well-crafted tales of individuals that face great odds. I’m still hung up on a minor moment during the auditions, when two girls trying out as dancers are propositioned to sign a contract to regularly sell their bodies by the festival’s leering ringmaster. The lack of comeuppance for such a sleazy character, or at least some form of rebuke, left me cold. Yet I am forced to question if this overbearing lack of hope is overly cynical, or in fact a much needed dose of realism?
Even if it’s not always pleasing to the senses, the commitment to presenting a less than sunny vision in this chapter is, without question, daring. Mighty’s slips into violence were jarring, and definitely a unsettling shift from the mood of the other two films that threatens to turn some people off. Again, it’s an aspect of the film I’m ambivalent about. I’ve admired how these films and their American reference point 8 Mile proposed the possibility of a battle of words replacing actual violence. It's a matter of idealism vs. life’s harsher realities. Even the final performance goes out on a ledge, portrayed in a firmly non-celebratory style, which does carry across an, until then unclear, message about loyalty and perseverance. It all leads to a messy and conflict-ridden anti-conclusion. While it may mark an inner urge for Irie to express a bleaker sentiment about the world around us, another possibility is that they are laying dramatic bridgework for another sequel. It would not be hard to imagine that he conceived of an even lengthier, more sprawling story that they decided to cut into two parts, as reports do indicate the series has been commercially successful in Japan.
Despite the lack of triumph, a sense of solidarity that comes through this countrified interpretation of hiphop is still evident. While its big city incarnation is seen as divisive, corrupt, and all about image, the freestyle exchanges between Tom and Ikku and their new allies lead to bonding together. Even when it’s done in confrontation, it comes off as respectful one upmanship and speaks of an understood, communal sense of pride. And a stubborn one -- it might be hard to imagine the ridiculously monikered newly introduced MC’s, especially Speak No Evil and the wildly varying in energy level DJ Sleeping Cat to defend their act from against taunts, but they do so with bravado.
It seems important to once more point out the presence of the unique freestyle rap dialogues. The story has grown up to the point where they are not as essential to the plot as they once were. They don’t work as well for me here as in 8,000 Miles 2: Girl Rappers, when they seemed integral to expressing the frustrations of the female rappers of that chapter. But they are there, making this part of a franchise that is truly a one of a kind moviegoing experience. How enamored you are with this trick, and perhaps how familiar with it you already are from the series’ earlier entries, will determine how much mileage you’ll likely get out of this 3rd chapter.
Roadside Fugitive is being shown at the Japan Cuts festival at The Japan Society on Sunday, July 22, 9:30 PM. Director Yu Irie will attend to introduce and answer questions after the screening!
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