A Savage Beast Goes Mad (1976)

America’s foremost power plant safety manager once improvised a clumsy but illustrative renaming of Jan de Bont’s 1995 action film, SPEED, as “THE BUS THAT COULDN’T SLOW DOWN.” It’s hard to say what they would have made of the 1976 heist-turned-bus-hijacking movie, A SAVAGE BEAST GOES MAD, but with no shortage of colorful elements – e.g., thieves, cops, crashes, and chickens – the potential alternate titles are as vast as they are ridiculous.

Helmed by prolific film director Sadao Nakajima (OKINAWA YAKUZA WAR) with cinematography by Kenji Tsukagoshi (THE STREET FIGHTER) and editing by Tadao Kanda (THE HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN), this is a frenzied and action-packed Toei Company b-movie all the way through.

At a café inside a city bus station, the alluring, feather-haired Fumiko (Masako Araki) is having a lively conversation on the house phone, and the tone is urgent. Through the ambient chatter among customers, we learn that there’s been a bank robbery nearby. Around the same time, a municipal bus destined for Kyoto cruises through its daily route to the soundtrack of a jaunty jazz tune. As the driver makes each stop, folks depart and new riders board for travel; these are regular people going through the paces of their usual commute. Based on the limited amount of visual information we have up to this point, a bus will surely be involved.

Any sense of normalcy is shattered when a pair of armed bank robbers storms the bus to escape the scene of their recently botched crime, with several cops giving chase on foot but failing to catch them. The shift in tone is palpable and immediate; with both criminals barking threats to establish a new order, the passengers become innocent hostages in a hijacking while the bus operator is now instead a getaway driver. News of the hostile takeover makes its way to the police department, and they draw up plans for strategic roadblocks and pursuit routes. When the bosses at the bus company learn of the hijacking of their “Number 71” bus, they also despair in their realization the bus driver on assignment has a critical heart condition!

As if this mix of elements wasn’t combustible enough, the coolest customer on the bus sitting all the way in the back row is Shin (Tsunehiko Watase), a handsome stranger wielding a mysterious instrument case and a steely disposition. When robber, Toshio (Ryuji Katagiri), holds a knife to the driver’s throat, Shin doesn’t flinch. He stays on the level when other riders argue with the robbers that they’re missing appointments, and when children are screaming, and when one especially frantic woman screams “I FORGOT TO TURN OFF THE STOVE!” He even sits on the sideline when two male passengers jump the robbers in a bloody brawl that reveals that the other robber, Sabu (Takuzo Kawatani), has been brandishing an unloaded gun. When the bus stops just long enough for Toshio to switch the bus’s license plate, Shin finally makes his move and escapes the bus. However, his instrument case gets stuck in the door and the bus drives off leaving Shin behind. It’s at this point that we see a flicker of emotion turn into a determined rage as Shin gives chase … on a bicycle. (Even against a lurching bus, it’s a poor choice in transportation). The reasons for his tenacity come into focus as we learn more of his background and why the instrument case is so critical. But even if he makes it back to the bus: what then?

Clocking in at just under 80 minutes, A SAVAGE BEAST GOES MAD is wild-eyed action cinema that almost never stops to blink. As the story unfolds over the course of a single day, scenes of the chaotic bus ride are carefully intercut with occasional flashes into character backstory, but those tangents are never longer than is necessary. It’s a simple and economical presentation of the story elements that just works. Nakajima imparts the film with comedic streaks throughout as a counterweight to the frequently grim violence. There’s Shin’s aforementioned bicycle-chase-in-vain, robber Sabu’s emotional ongoing crisis of confidence (which eventually breaks into song), and a troupe of costumed theater performers who randomly fiddle on their musical instruments to pass the time, and they even treat a passenger’s gushing knife wound. There’s also a pair of cheating lovers taking the bus back from their latest tryst who seem more worried about being found out by their spouses than dying during a hijacking. A kid pees out the window onto a trailing cop car, there’s a mischievous pug, and there are plenty of exaggerated facial expressions from the entire cast. The hijackers seem to think they’re running the show, but everyone on the bus has their own desperate circumstances, causing unexpected shifts in the power dynamics that add even more unpredictability to the ordeal.

The action is a Toei-style demolition derby, and the results are smashing. Tsukagoshi’s choices in shot composition and viewing angles combined with Kanda’s artful editing make every action scene feel especially high-stakes, and they linger just long enough on the grisly aftermath of poor decisions to highlight the cause and effect. As an example, a cop decides to jump from an overpass onto the speeding bus but predictably whiffs on the landing, crushing his face and breaking both legs on the street below. There’s a requisite crash through a chicken coop that uses slow-motion on the backside of the collision to highlight the sudden cacophony of squawking and wing-flapping. There are police car crashes galore, Fumiko does some impressive high-speed weaving through city traffic, and more than a few folks splash into a watery landing after running out of road in pursuit. Thanks to Nakajima’s steady direction, the pace of the story beats, and the visual style, the entire film feels propulsive from the get-go, and it keeps that sense of momentum to the very end.

This is a high recommendation if you can track it down and especially if you like a compact and well-done 1970s genre b-movie from the wildly entertaining Toei production template. That said, neither the film’s English title, nor its alternate title, CRAZED BEAST, quite capture the spirit of the film in the most descriptive terms. If you flipped over the one-minute sand timer and pressed me for an unofficial do-over, something like “ALWAYS TAKE THE SUBWAY INSTEAD OF THE BUS” might be the best overlap of illustrative and instructive I could muster.

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