Maniac Driver (2020) Review

Maniac Driver (2020) Review

“Maniac Driver” Theatrical Poster

Director: Kurando Mitsutake
Cast: Tomoki Kimura, Iori Kogawa, Yohta Kawase, Ayumi Kimito, Keisaku Kimura, Ai Sayama
Running Time: 75 min.

By Paul Bramhall 

As a director Kurando Mitsutake has proven to be a talent whose work consistently defies expectations.  Not entirely dissimilar to Quentin Tarantino, his movies feel steeped in the influence of 70’s cinema, littered with homages and narratives that feel new yet familiar at the same time. The biggest difference between Tarantino and Mitsutake though, is that the latter’s productions are distilled through a lens of pure exploitation, topped off with a distinctly Japanese twist. Comparatively Mitsutake’s modest budgets may pale when placed next to Tarantino’s Hollywood clout, but what can’t be denied is he’s created some of the most entertaining slices of gonzo cinema over the last decade. From the self-starring Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf, to the madness of Gun Woman, and most recently the self-explanatory Karate Kill. 

When I interviewed Mitsutake in 2017 and asked what he thought his next feature would be, he replied he thought it’d “be either my first full-on horror movie, or a hardboiled actioner.” He didn’t let on, but at the time he was already in talks to direct a couple of big budget Japanese productions that would have put him on the mainstream radar, one (in his own words from an interview in 2021) a “hard-boiled Film Noir”, and the other an action flick. Ultimately though both would get stuck in development hell, and after 4 years, in 2020 he decided to let them go. Eager to get back into the director’s chair, the offer to direct a Pink Eiga production may have seemed like a world away from the budgets he’d hoped to be working with, but after the company behind it agreed he could make it a horror, he came onboard and Maniac Driver was born.

So his wish to make a horror may have come true, although ironically even this wasn’t the end of his woes. Once the production company backing Maniac Driver realised that Mitsutake’s script had subtly political undertones incorporated into it, they also backed out, which left the producer to cough up whatever funds they could to ensure the cameras at least got to roll. Thankfully roll they did, and with a cast of AV (adult video) actresses already locked in, the production was put together over just 4 and a half days of shooting (the last of which lasted more than 50 hours – which may explain where the half came from!).  

While such conditions may hardly be ideal for filmmaking, there’s almost a guilty sense of relief as a fan of Mitsutake’s work that he hasn’t gone mainstream yet, although I certainly wouldn’t be one to begrudge him doing so. Being part of the mainstream film industry, especially for a director like Mitsutake and especially for a film industry like Japan, would inevitably result in a dilution of everything that made his style so distinctive in the first place. You only need to look at a director who followed a similar path like Miike Takashi – most fans would invariably choose to watch one of his V-Cinema entries like Visitor Q, over one of his big budget productions like Shield of Straw, myself included.

So it is we have what’s proudly declared as ‘A Japanese Giallo’, a genre that’s rarely visited outside of its Italian roots, with perhaps the last time a Japanese production could legitimately wear the title being 1988’s Door. The plot involves a meek taxi driver who finds himself overcome with murderous urges whenever a beautiful woman gets into his cab, the trauma of seeing his own wife brutally murdered by a masked killer driving him to exact revenge on society by making someone else suffer the same way. Featuring an opening credits sequences that plays over a woman showering who gradually starts to pleasure herself, it should give audiences a taste of what to expect. But just in case there’s any lingering doubt, the credits wrap when the Maniac Driver himself turns up decked out in a black motorcycle helmet and leather jacket, and proceeds to drive a knife through her breast in gratuitous close-up.

I know what you’re thinking – can you really call a movie a giallo when we know who the killer is from the first scene? I’m going to say yes, as the influences of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci cast a long shadow over Maniac Driver’s aesthetic, with scenes bathed in garishly bright light, and the camera capturing death scenes with an admiring gaze. The murder in the opening scene clearly takes its cue from Fulci’s The New York Ripper, and the first-person viewpoint of the black gloved killer brandishing a knife as they stalk their prey feels like pure Argento. Mitsutake doesn’t just look to the Italian masters for inspiration though, with the grittiness of American cinema in the 70’s and early 80’s also permeating through, with the likes of William Lustig’s Maniac and, most blatantly, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver being points of reference. We even get the Japanese giallo equivalent of De Niro’s classic “you talkin’ to me?” scene.

Clocking in at a lean 75 minutes, Maniac Driver as expected has precisely zero fat on the bone. The plot amounts to the one line I mentioned in a previous paragraph, with the driver of the title played with a gleeful relish by Tomoki Kimura (The Limit of Sleeping Beauty, and Mitsutake’s latest movie Lion-Girl). Spending his time either contemplating killing himself or murdering his female passengers (and then killing himself), he’s understandably a little edgy to be around. The only part worth elaborating on is the infatuation he develops with one of his passengers who bears a resemblance to his wife, played by AV actress Iori Kogawa (The Game of Jou-Ou, and the Korean production Summer with Mica). Kogawa becomes Kimura’s main target later on, however when it turns out he may not be the only one with ill intentions towards her, events transpire that it may actually offer him a chance at redemption.

There’s something about the humble taxi that seems to make it the perfect plot device for portraying characters with a troubled psyche, and Kimura portrays the role as a kind of mix between Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver and Anthony Wong in Taxi Hunter. I daresay they’d make an ideal triple bill.  Much like in Scorsese’s classic, we view almost the entirety of Maniac Driver from the perspective of Kimura, and similarly there’s a question around how much of what we’re seeing is reality, and how much a delusion that’s a result of his constant sake swilling and pill popping. Whereas Travis Bickle’s delusions may have revolved around violence, with a handful of AV actresses onboard, most of Kimura’s involve sex. Lots of sex, with Maniac Driver unashamedly embracing its Pink Eiga origins, meaning scenes of nudity, slow motion bouncing, Flower and Snake-esque bondage, and gratuitous groping are never far away.

That’s not a bad thing, but considering we’re living in a Puritan age of cinema in the western hemisphere, it’s perhaps worth pointing out that this is not the movie to watch for strong and empowered female characters. At the same time, Mitsutake treads the right side of the line and never descends into misogyny, with Kimura ultimately cutting somewhat of an intentionally pathetic character, only coming to life once he puts on his motorcycle helmet and leathers to become a manically cackling killer. Had the runtime been any longer there would perhaps be deeper themes and underlying messages to explore, however as it is the punchy 75 minutes results in a kind of livewire energy that’s maintained from start to finish. The trade-off may be that there’s never really a sense of tension built up during the actual giallo scenes, but the pacing and energy compensate in such a way that it never becomes a detriment.

With a soundtrack that interchanges between pulsating Goblin-esque synthesisers and power metal courtesy of Japan band Aiming High’s Yasuhiro Kawaguchi, a joyous amount of fake blood that’s used liberally, and a healthy dose of sex, Maniac Driver feels like a shot in the arm of exploitation adrenaline. Frame all of these elements through a giallo infused lens, and once more Mitsutake proves he’s one of the most distinctive directors working in Japan today, proving that time and budget constraints are no match for creativity and a willingness to push the boundaries.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10