ROAD TO HIGH & LOW Review: Shigeaki Kubo’s Epic Motorcycle Gangster Action Drama Revs Up With A Sizeable, Emotive First Chapter
As obscure as any news can be about Japanese film productions, this site has certainly made an ample effort over the last six years to update readers on the progress of LDH’s hit mega franchise, High & Low (stylized as HiGH&LOW at home). That it comes packaged with a frontline of A-list screen and stage talents from the music and acting scene bodes a formidable offering as well, and it especially helps that those catching on out here in the West have since taken a liking to the work of directors like Takashi Miike, especially since High & Low speaks indelibly to the deliquent gangster genre fanbase.
Led off by a two season drama on NTV and Hulu in Japan, the film end of the franchise launched on Sunday on Netflix with all seven feature films now streaming; Sharing the helm for the first-season NTV drama, High & Low: The Story Of S.W.O.R.D., was Shigeaki Kubo and Toshimitsu Chimura, of which the former would then go on to solo-direct the first two major films, firstly with Road To High & Low, and it also needs reiterating that in order to get a grip on the sprawling events to come, you must begin with THAT film, as it delves analogously into the world established in the 2015 drama.
Thus, Road To High & Low is where it all starts, as Kubo immerses you into the world of the Mugen motorcycle club, wherein the days following a conflict with the maverick Amamiya brothers, Masaki (Takahiro) and Hiroto (Hiroomi Tosaka), the club splits into five autonomous gangs, effectively branding their town with the acronym, S.W.O.R.D. (the letters stand for the name of each gang). Central to the story here are the pivotal members of the Sannoh Hoodlum Squad – Cobra (Takanori Iwata), Yamato (Nobuyuki Suzuki) and Noboru (Keita Machida) – and the friendship they’ve shared from boyhood into adulthood. The breaking point comes during Noboru’s prospective law school career when a violent incident lands him behind bars, dissolving any chance he’s had of pursuing his dreams.
Meanwhile, Cobra and Sannoh find themselves mitigating a young prospect named Chiharu, as they find themselves wedged into a conflict with the Oya High School gang, led by Murayama (Yuki Yamada). In the events to come, Cobra and Yamato soon find themselves embroiled in a make-or-break stand off when Noboru re-emerges as a yakuza underling of the Iemura family – one of nine powerful factions of the Kuryu Group – whose sole goal at this stage is to take over S.W.O.R.D..
Making matters worse are, two fold: the moment when Sannoh member Dan (Kenjiro Yamashita) gets hoodwinked into trespassing the territory of the White Rascals, whose leader, the baton-wielding Rocky (Keiji), is itching to hand someone a beating to make an example, and, the sudden arrival of a new drug being secretly manufactured in the underbelly of Nameless Street, which is protected by the freelancing, ever-agile Rude Boys, led by Smokey (Masataka Kubota). With possible traitors in their midst, the gangs are all on the brink of war, and when Hyuga (Kento Hayashi), commences his own violent agenda after being released from prison, it’s up to Cobra and the members of Sannoh to punch, kick and slam their point across and let the respective leaders know who the real enemy is, all while risking their lives to save Noboru from himself.
While the High & Low franchise comprised of largely young, spritely performance artists hailing from Japanese supergroup, Exile Tribe – founded within the LDH global wheelhouse – only a few elder cast members make the roster, namely actor Tatsuya Nakamura leading point as Tatsumi Iemura, head of the imposing Imeura family. The film’s female line-up introduces Shuka Fujii, You, and Kyoko Koizumi, with Karen Fujii in the pivotal role of Lala. Each character does have a role to play in this inaugural feature of the saga, and it helps significanty to see select flashbacks along with the accompanying narration to establish a fair effort of world building. The only shortfall here really, is that not everything on screen will make sense unless you’ve seen both seasons of High & Low: The Story Of S.W.O.R.D., although it ultimately helps to watch the films in succession so as to spot where all the easter eggs lead and piece things together as the saga progresses.
The film employs slicky-edited and stylized introductory sequences for each gang and their leader, host to musical themes by Exile Tribe bands such as Sandaime J Soul Brothers, Doberman Infinity, PKCZ® and Generations among others; Doberman Infinity’s “Jump Around” theme for Oya High will instantly stand out for anyone who was brought up listening to hip-hop in the last thirty years. Each gang also comes with either their own thematic fashion or color code and edgy logo design, with the White Rascals donning a more flamboyant mien.
Front and center, of course, are the kitchen sink haymakers, wily fisticuffs and scraps that make up the bulk of the action in the film, topped with spectacularly shot parkour action per the characterization of the Rude Boys, and jump-spinning back kicks taken straight from the Donnie Yen playbook. Much of action falls in line with much of what you would see if you were a fan of the delinquent genre years ago with the live-action Crows adaptations by the aforementioned Miike. The action gets bloody and brutal, with lively music in the backdrop to pump up the excitement, and it’s all balanced with ample drama to coalesce things, lest you be inundated with watching action for action’s sake.
Whatever the case was with the High & Low franchise and its gargantuan push toward success six years ago, the fact is the franchise is still a surprise, particularly for folks outside of Japan who are only just beginning to discover it for themselves via Netflix, and this could be a good thing (notably considering Sony Pictures Television’s Cobra Kai found even greater fruition after only a few years on YouTube Premium). Lord knows if and when the NTV and Hulu S.W.O.R.D. dramas may arrive stateside, and at this juncture, it’s fairly certain the fans would welcome it if Netflix follows suit here as well. In the meantime, fans who’ve been gagging for more pound-for-pound Crows-style action and storytelling with near-Game Of Thrones epicism can expect good and plenty from the High & Low franchise, with Road To High & Low, which, for all intense and purposes, is only the beginning of a hearty, energizing action cinema journey.
Road To High & Low is now on Netflix.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.