Ask almost anyone over the age of 16 and they’ll tell you that high school is a pressure cooker. Beyond the usual demands of academic achievement, students are trying to find their own identities, make solid friendships, navigate the heartaches of young love, and balance personal schedules filled with extracurricular activities like clubs, sports, and part-time jobs as they speed towards the cliff of early adulthood. Imagine trying to deal with all of that but also fighting a violent biker gang for control of your student council money. This is the basic premise of Genji Nakamura’s 1985 film, GO FOR BROKE, a fictional but functionally accurate portrayal of the high school experience.
On a twice-a-year basis, the students of Kibougaoka High School (or according to multiple English-language sources, “Hope Hill High”) have been targeted and terrorized by the Yagyu (or “Yaesu”) High School biker gang in violent raids that have left the kids bloody and beaten and their student government coffers totally empty. While it’s never stated exactly how many years this has been happening, there have been enough incidents for the students to create a full-length video documentary – titled, “Terror of the Yagyu Army” — depicting their past ass-kickings. The members of the student government have assembled on a dark and stormy night at school to watch the doc, feel bad for themselves, and figure out how to handle the next attack. (This felt very much akin to NBA teams watching game film after a loss to figure out what needs to be fixed before the next contest, but without any adults in the room).
There’s some initial discussion of negotiating a discount and other forms of push-back (“we are scholars, not fighters,” says one nerd) but then Satomi (Kozue Saito), the computer whiz younger sister of a student, crashes the meeting and suggests that they hire bodyguards (“yojimbo”) for protection. If this is beginning to sound like a cheap take on SEVEN SAMURAI, Satomi blurts out “jeez, haven’t any of you seen SEVEN SAMURAI?” to slam the point home.
With Satomi’s help, the students assemble a crack-team of absolute badasses, starting with Saeka (Yukari Uasami), a former graduate who rides a dirtbike at the local beach. Saeka then reaches out within her own constellation of capable friends and recruits a stuntwoman who goes by the name Chuck, an explosives and munitions expert named Highness who wants a chance to be wild, a rule-breaking professional wrestler who wants to be cheered for once, and a delinquent named Razor Maki who was previously expelled from the school. All are tough ladies, and each has their own simple but clearly defined motive to join the effort.
After gathering the necessary data about the Yagyu gang and doing the same for their own team (“the Madonna Army”), Satomi loads everything into a computer program to strategize different scenarios because it’s the auto-magic 1980s. Leaving nothing to chance, the students also blackmail a recent transfer student, Komachi (Yuko Watanabe) – whose extracurricular activity is turning tricks – into helping them because one of her main clients is a Yagyu gang member. (Reminder: these are supposed to be the heroes).
What follows is an exchange of successful defenses by the student army countered by evil deeds from the Yagyu, each one more horrendous than the last. Far from a rudderless group of delinquents, the biker gang is led by a fearsome boss lady known as Leopard (Yuki Ninagawa). She wears her sunglasses at night, she drives a muscle car, she yells a lot, and she beats up her underlings when they screw things up. As the HBIC (e.g., Head Biker in Charge), Leopard is ultra-serious, but her outbursts are enjoyable to watch, and she has some compelling character layers revealed in the third act.
With each side determined to win at almost any cost, who will survive? And even if they do, what will be left in the aftermath?
Watching GO FOR BROKE is like having a chain wrapped around your neck and getting dragged through sea surf by a motorcycle at a moderately high speed and I mean this in the best way possible. The film has a fantastic pace with almost no narrative fat of which to speak – we know the predicament from the start and every scene is oriented around it. Those scenes move efficiently and with a sense of purpose. The traits and motivations of the main characters are simple but they have unique and memorable introductions and presentations, which makes the story easy to follow, chaotic as it may be. The various biker gang members – clad in face-paint, cheap masks, studs, spikes, leather, or some combination of everything – fall somewhere between 1980s Italian post-apocalyptic outlaws and various cast-offs from THE WARRIORS or DEADBEAT AT DAWN.
The small-scale, person-on-person violence is a bit clumsy at times, but it’s well-shot and has the right energy for a movie like this. Fists and kicks fly, people get dragged around by motorcycles, and enemies get zipped and slashed with razors. The larger-scale violence and action is where the film really soars (before exploding into fireworks). Director Genji Nakamura and cinematographer Mutsuo Naganuma (THE TWILIGHT SAMURAI) build tension and a real sense of menace prior to the major fight scenes with long shots of dozens of the bikers rolling into the scenery as a large, mean pack. The students fight off their tormentors by various means – e.g., fire extinguishers, volleyballs, baseball bats – but none wilder to watch than the various pyrotechnic explosions deployed in the climactic battle at the school. There are some great vehicle stunts, at least one human torch, and a fitting, massive explosion to end the final battle. Somehow, despite the bloody madness of the finale, almost nobody dies onscreen, and the students also find time to conduct important library research.
From the terrific opening scene to the explosive ending – and a character announcing the actual, specific film they’re pilfering right out loud – GO FOR BROKE is a movie that should please fans of dirtbikes, beaches, wielding fireworks as assault weapons, last-minute DIY Halloween costumes, 1970s girl-boss (“sukeban”) movies of Japan, and 1980s personal computers.