D.A.N.G.A.N Runner (aka Non-Stop)

Japan (1996) Dir. Sabu 

We’re all running from something in our lives. It might be responsibility, danger, other people, the past, the present or the even the future – it is human nature to avoid these things, but no matter how fast we run they will always catch up with us. This debut from mononymous maverick Japanese director Sabu explores this notion via this literal and symbolic sprint through the streets of Tokyo.

At the centre of this sprawling parable is Yasuda (Tomorowo Taguchi), a bullied kitchen worker and all round sad sack at the end of his tether. After meeting ex-girlfriend Midori (Ryoko Takizawa) and her wealthy new boyfriend Yasuda decides to rob a bank. On the day of the robbery, Yasuda forgets his face mask and nips to the nearest convenience store to get one, but as they only had children’s size, Yasuda opts to steal it.

Store worker Aizawa (Diamond Yukai) confronts Yasuda and is accidentally shot in the arm by the nervy thief. Aizawa angrily chases the fleeing Yasuda, during which they knock over Takeda (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a yakuza Aizawa owes money to, who joins the chase. During the scuffle, an errant shot from Yasuda’s gun hits a by standing Yakuza boss sparking a gang war with police intervention.

It’s just as well D.A.N.G.A.N Runner is a black comedy and not a drama or thriller as the coincidences feel a little silly to take seriously. In the hands of a Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd this would be a physical comedy with many cleverly constructed slapstick set pieces to break up the monotony of the running. Sabu is making a symbolic statement with his chase although his abstract approach might not make this so obvious.

Coming from the same low budget indie school of filmmaking as early Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Shinya Tsukamoto with a hint of Takashi Miike’s esoteric cheek and Takeshi Kitano’s bold candour, Sabu (real name Hiroyuki Tanaka) fleshes out this flimsy premise with flashbacks of the situations that lead to the three principals taking what appears to be a Forrest Gump-esque run to nowhere that ends in an epiphany.

Yasuda is literally at the bottom of every ladder in his life, so much so that we wonder how he managed to get a job or a girlfriend in the first place. He represents the average Joe who means well and does no harm to anyone but can never catch a break, yet robbing a bank is an extreme way to help Yasuda escape his downtrodden existence so it is no surprise that he mucks it up.

Aizawa is a failed rock star and recovering junkie, having sought solace in drugs by way of soothing his disappointment as his chances of fame slip further away. This extends to the patient girlfriend he mistreats in a chemical haze resulting in him being kicked to the curb. Regret over this doesn’t seem to trouble Aizawa as much as his failed career does so whatever he is looking for in running away is a little oblique.  

Takeda is the most curious case of the three, beholden to the yakuza code yet clearly not cut out for it, carrying the guilt of his boss’s death when Takeda dodges the knife instead of taking the hit as per his duty. He contemplates suicide over this, interrupted by the collision with Aizawa knocking the knife out of his hand, deciding Aizawa’s scalp is better suited to the blade.

Yet it is the sagacious words from Takeda’s late boss which provide the integral change in philosophical meaning of this manic street chase, the focus shifting from what each man is running from to where they are running to. Once they’ve exceeded the town boundaries and end up on the motorway they’ve left all of their miseries and anchors behind, leaving nothing but new journeys to be made.

Can they see it through though? Unfortunately, whilst you can leave the past behind, the past won’t leave you. This may be Sabu’s debut but given the cinematic company he keeps, the tone of the film thus far and the fact yakuza are involved all signs point to the ending unlikely to see these budding Mo Farahs heading off towards a golden sunset. But this marathon exercise session did bring some enlightenment for them and for a brief moment, they were free men.

Sabu admitted that his original script was too short which is why Takeda’s storyline with the yakuza involvement feels like a tacked on and hastily constructed subplot that might have made the climax feel as urgent as it wants to be. What we do get is something that is entertaining, bloody – for those waiting for typical Japanese violence to show up – and, of course, enigmatically obtuse.

I have to confess this is my first Sabu film and as already mentioned, it is apparent even from this debut that his style fits in with the peers and contemporaries listed earlier but with some nice quirks and ideas of his own. One scene that stands out is when the three runners pass an attractive woman in a short skirt and they each fantasise about her in a different way to delineate their personalities.

The low budget guerrilla filmmaking vibe stands out during the running sequences with are breathless to watch as they are to participate in, and the Kitano influence in the comedy is palpable but not blatantly copied. For a first timer, Sabu is very confident in getting what he wants from his relatively unknown lead cast who have since become reliable veterans covering all genres.

Even at 82-minutes D.A.N.G.A.N Runner does feel like a short film extended beyond its natural life span through some unnecessary non-sequiturs but Sabu’s feel for energy, satire and drama is impressive. And you’ll notice it precedes Run Lola Run by two years in case the premise seemed familiar, so thank Third Window Films for finally giving its spiritual Asian cousin a belated UK release.