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  • Benjamin May

Kamikaze Taxi (1995) Review

It is the 1990’s and Tatsuo is a low-level Yakuza. A charismatic Casanova, he is tasked with supplying Domon- a conservative misogynist politician- with prostitutes. After Domon brutalises two of his working girls, Tatsuo decides to rob him. The heist does not go down well, and Tatsuo barely escapes. With his boss Animaru hot on his tail, Tatsuo enlists Kantake- a Peruvian-Japanese taxi driver- as his chauffeur. Along with Tama, one of Tatsuo’s working girls, the three take to the road; on the run with nowhere to go.

Written and directed by Masato Harada, ‘Kamikaze Taxi’ is an original, compelling film, both dramatic, comedic and engaging. Although on the surface a Tarantinoesque tale of revenge, it contains thematic depth, delving into the seedy underbelly of Japan, presenting a society grappling with the intersection of traditional values and the harsh realities of modern life. It also examines the struggles of marginalized individuals, namely Kantake, who faces poverty and prejudice upon returning to his homeland after decades in South America.

Harada poignantly portrays the identity struggles of immigrants like Kantake, who navigate the complexities of being in a society that regards them as outsiders. This theme is intricately woven into the storyline, highlighting the characters’ search for meaning against a backdrop of societal indifference. Moreover, the movie critiques the deep-seated corruption within Japan’s political and criminal landscapes, examining how power dynamics dictate morality and influence choices.

The road trip becomes a metaphor for the characters’ existential journey, as they confront the socioeconomic disparities that shape their existence. Harada’s narrative is a stark commentary on the dichotomy between Japan’s wealthy elite and the marginalized working class; a compelling study of a society in flux. With the film, Harada has crafted a narrative that is as much about the personal odysseys of its characters as it is a critique of the societal structures they navigate. His characterisation is astute, his dialogue witty and his narrative engrossing.

It is also a visually evocative affair, containing striking visuals from cinematographer Yoshitaka Sakamoto, which complement the film’s thematic complexity. He captures the neon-drenched streets and tranquil countryside with aplomb, creating a stark contrast that reflects the inner turmoil of the characters. His use of light and shadow, as well as dynamic camera angles, adds dramatic tension, making the visual narrative as engaging as its storyline.

The cinematography not only enhances the mood but also serves as a silent narrator, guiding the audience through the characters’ emotional landscapes and the societal commentary woven throughout the film. In addition, editor Hirohide Abe’s masterful work is pivotal, crafting a rhythmic cadence that echoes the film’s emotive pulse. His meticulous scene transitions build suspense and deliver potent climaxes, keeping the audience riveted. Abe’s adept timing and pacing elevate the film, making it an immersive narrative voyage.

Kazuya Takahashi stars as Tatsuo, alongside Koji Yakusho as Kantake, Reiko Kataoka as Tama and Mickey Curtis as Animaru. Takahashi embodies Tatsuo with a raw yet comedic intensity, capturing the desperate conflict of a man caught between worlds and ideals. Yakusho’s Kantake is a study in stoicism, his nuanced portrayal of an immigrant’s struggle lending proceedings a poignant gravity. With ease, his thoughtful, measured performance is both compelling and affecting. His presence on screen adds a profound weight to the film, captivating and moving the audience.

Kataoka is similarly understated, portraying Tama’s resilience and depth subtly, adding a vital layer to the story. Curtis’s performance as the saxophone playing, swordstick wielding Animaru is both menacing and magnetic; rightly winning him the Kinema Junpo Award for best supporting actor in 1996. Additionally, Taketoshi Naitô makes for a fantastically seedy villain as Domon; bringing a perfect blend of sleaze and sophistication to the role, making him a character you love to hate.

An insightful, darkly funny road trip of revenge, Masato Harada’s ‘Kamikaze Taxi’ is gripping from start to finish. Although lengthy, it moves at a fast pace, boasting witty dialogue, an engaging narrative and compelling characters. Skewering 1990’s Japanese society, particularly with regard to politics; it’s wickedly clever and consistently entertaining. Visually striking and featuring strong performances from all in the cast, ‘Kamikaze Taxi’ is a wild ride you wouldn’t want to miss.


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