The Cab Ride From Hell

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STEPHEN SHORTKamikaze Taxi, says director Masato Harada, is my most special movie because it's more a reflection of my life-style. What a life-style. Knee-deep in gangsters, pimps, prostitutes and sleazy right-wing politicians, the movie exposes the thuggish underbelly that Japan would sooner deny than confront. For Harada, love matters, blood splatters.Released four years ago in Japan, but now re-edited and opening worldwide, the movie is basically in two parts. The first, by far the bloodier, follows handsome, cocky Tatsuo (Kazuya Takahashi), a young man who finds work pimping for an aging politician, a character Harada clearly wants us to hate. The elderly man cheats on the golf course, consorts with the yakuza and froths at the mouth on television against foreign influence. When the politician beats up a prostitute, Tatsuo's girlfriend dares to protest, for which she is killed in front of Tatsuo. The young man rounds up a group of mates to rob money from the politician's house, and then sets off on a kamikaze mission to kill the old man and avoid his pursuers--a journey that turns the second half into a road movie.The violence accompanying Tatsuo's passage from pimp to revenge-seeker is offset by the appearance of cab driver Kantake, played by Koji Yakusho, who starred in the hits Shall We Dance? and Lost Paradise. Kantake may well have taken lessons in decency from Jimmy Stewart's grandmother. Reticent outside but strong as an ox underneath, he is a cross-cultural outcast, a Japanese brought up in South America and struggling against the prejudices of his native-born countrymen. The two misfits develop an unlikely buddyship that culminates in Kantake's chilling assault on the politician's home. The foreigner becomes avenging angel for both Tatsuo and his own fellow outcasts. The passion in the movie came from Koji's performance, says director Harada, a well-groomed man who favors smart jackets. From the first day he spoke, tension was there.Harada's last film, Bounce Ko Gals, about the exploitation of young girls by salarymen, won box office success overseas, though not at home. Kamikaze Taxi is sure to attract at least a cult following. The narrative is overly long (160 minutes) and lacks cohesion. But the film has an epic lunacy, a satiric darkness. Its neon-lit nightscapes and vivid brutality dance, shock--and leave the viewer both riveted and repulsed.