Run Dangan Run: How Japan Paved The Way For ‘Run Lola Run’

Thomas Tykwer's disorienting time-bending thriller Run Lola Run lit a spark for independent cinema in the 1990s – but a Japanese film paved the way just two years before. James Balmont writes on Dangan Runner, now on BFI Player

Timing is everything, especially when you’re making a film about running.

When Thomas Tykwer released Run Lola Run in 1998, few could argue that he wasn’t on the right tempo. An explosion of breakneck editing, relentless techno music and plot-spurning time-jumps told through the eyes of a defiant, red-haired vixen, Run Lola Run was Groundhog Day for the MTV generation. The simple story of a woman’s repeated attempts to quickly obtain a large amount of cash to save her boyfriend’s life, the film would win seven German Film Awards, the Sundance audience award, a BAFTA nomination, and was even put forward for the Oscars. Made on a budget of less than $2 million, it raked in $23 million at the box office, entering record books as the biggest-grossing movie in German film history.

But the same shoes had been worn just two years prior, in a Japanese film that caused no such impact upon release. Dangan Runner was the vibrant and thrilling debut of one Hiroyuki Tanaka – better known as SABU – who matched the pace and personality of his German counterpart in every department. An 82-minute foot-chase following a downtrodden kitchen porter who dreams of robbing a bank, only to get caught shoplifting at a convenience store, the film pits the hapless lead against a drug-addicted cashier, who is himself pursued by an ex-yakuza drug dealer. It was released straight-to-video, and failed to find an audience at home or abroad.

Twenty-four years later, it’s finally getting the recognition it deserves off the back of a slick Blu-ray release via Third Window Films, and inclusion on the ‘Independence’ strand of the BFI’s celebratory Japan 2020 season. But with these two rollercoaster works hitting the ground just two years apart, how could one leave audiences breathless while the other missed its mark?

Dangan Runner was the product of a new wave of independent cinema in Japan, designed to turn the fortunes of a studio system that had been in decline since the introduction of home video systems in the ’80s. V-Cinema was Japan’s answer to direct-to-video filmmaking, designed to return a quick profit on smaller investments while allowing a greater degree of creativity for young, independent talent. For 31-year-old bit-part actor SABU, it was an opportunity to transition behind the camera with the promise of creative fulfilment.

But in the eyes of Euro-centric film critics, Japan was still in a lull in the mid ’90s as the country endured a decade-long economic crisis. It was not until the unlikely success of a pair of Japanese films at major European film festivals in 1997 that the country would finally be recognised for its domestic filmmaking talent again. When Shohei Imamura’s Unagi picked up the Palme d’Or at Cannes, it was the first time a Japanese film had won in 14 years. When Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi bagged the Golden Lion at Venice, it was nearly 40.

By comparison, Germany was already "im Mode" in 1998, when Run Lola Run was released. The demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989 had prefaced a decade-long cultural revolution that saw the reunified capital city thrive as a creative melting point, rivalling that of ’70s New York. With abandoned industrial spaces repurposed as all-night clubs and drug-fuelled dance festivals like Mayday and Love Parade competing for the mantle of Europe’s biggest party, 1991 would become referred to as the "German Summer of Love". Through the advent of techno, Germany would be acknowledged for its cultural appeal for the first time since before World War Two.

It was through this re-energised identity that a film like Run Lola Run was able to capture the imaginations of audiences across the world. Set in a thriving Berlin, soundtracked by pulsating motorik rhythms, and clocking in at a lean 80 minutes, it features over 15,000 cuts in an emphatic display of editing dynamism; an adrenaline rush of montage filmmaking that embodies the spirit and momentum of the country’s counter-culture renaissance. Even the narrative seems to mimic Berlin’s appetite for repetitive beats, as Franka Potente’s Lola repeats a 20-minute time-loop with only the slightest of variations, as she strives to save her bagman boyfriend Manni from death at the hand of his vengeful gangland bosses.

Dangan Runner is every bit as exciting in its execution, with its low-budget limitations spurring a similar appetite for innovation. The frenetic three-way pursuit that carries the film bursts from the screen through the use of dynamic camerawork, providing a constant sense of energy as the runners traverse the urban sprawl of Nakano and Koenji districts in Tokyo. Tribal beats and breathless panting heighten the urgency as the film’s narrative rhythm is broken up by flashbacks, flash-forwards, and imagined side-plots from the perspectives of three different characters as they reach a state of transcendence in their exhaustion.

Where Run Lola Run had used a tripartite narrative to elevate a simple plot through rhyming chapters, Dangan Runner amplifies a story about human self-discovery through three different characters achieving mutual enlightenment through their shared endurance. There are even numerous scenes mirrored across the two films: from the use of a bank and a supermarket as pivotal crossroads for each respective narrative, to unfold to tracking shots of characters partially-obscured as they run past fencing panels to create an impressive flip-book effect.

But while Run Lola Run, fuelled by a hip music video style, a rhythmic intensity and a vivid colour palette, provides an enduring appeal through superficial thrills and a Brutalist setting, its central concept feels inescapably indebted to Japan. The device of repeating the story three times with minor variants was, after all, pioneered by the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa with his 1954 Golden Lion winner Rashomon.

Even without the narrative repetition of Run Lola Run, the ambiguous conclusion of Dangan Runner provides a meaningful depth that lingers well beyond the credits. In the final scene, lead runner Yasuda is left staring at his reflection in a mirror, harking back to one of the film’s earliest shots to suggest a cyclical nature to his journey of introspection. We’re left with an existential crisis to contemplate, something that’s absent in Run Lola Run‘s all-too-satisfying and inevitable happy ending.

If the impact of Run Lola Run represents an exhilarating sprint, then Dangan Runner feels like it was running a marathon. 24 years on, it’s impressive how many of its cast and crew members have become cult stars. Actors Tomoro Tageuchi and Ren Osugi would play pivotal roles in Hana-bi and Unagi, the watershed features that would take top honours in 1997. Akaji Maro and Diamond Yukai would represent their home country in big-hitting US films about Japanese culture at the turn of the century, starring in Kill Bill and Lost in Translation. And in 2000, SABU’s fourth film Monday would take home the FIPRESCI Forum Prize at Berlin Film Festival – cementing the director’s reputation in the upper echelons of international filmmaking, in the very city where Lola had left him eating dust two years prior.

As the timeless Aesop fable of The Tortoise and The Hare has taught us for generations, it’s not always the fastest starter that wins the race. Dangan Runner has been playing a long game, but in 2020 it deserves to finally pick up its medal.

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