Kamikaze Taxi is a movie of many sides. It's a mixture of genres, which in turn are mixed with strong and frank criticism of the discrimination that lies dormant within Japanese society.
Young yakuza Tatsuo is in charge of scouting girls to serve the whims of Domon, a corrupt senator whose carries his Japaneseness and his history as a kamikaze pilot on his sleeve. Domon turns out to be a first-rate pervert and a violent one at that. The women usually return bleeding, battered and bruised. When Tatsuo's girlfriend, also part of the organisation, protests, she is beaten to death by the gang's boss. Tatsuo, forced to watch helplessly as his girl is murdered before his eyes, swears revenge on Domon and sets out on a plan to rob the senator of the 2 million dollars hidden in a safe at his house. Enlisting the help of five buddies, Tatsuo enters the house at night. A panicked, chaotic heist ensues from which only Tatsuo escapes intact. And with the money. The furious Domon holds the Tatsuo's boss personally responsible and puts the 2 million debt on his shoulders, plus interest.
Meanwhile, Tatsuo encounters a taxi driver and rather than forcing him at gunpoint, he says he will pay for the ride. It's the start of a very long cab ride indeed and with it, the film's tone switches. The gangster action film becomes a road movie and gains a soul in the process. Trapped together in this situation, the two men increasingly confide in each other. With Tatsuo we learn that the cab driver was born Japanese, but raised in Peru. Returning to his homeland armed with a rather shaky command of the Japanese language, he has found himself an outcast, unaccepted and discriminated against. He drives a beaten-up, graffitied station wagon and is a taxi driver not by choice, but because he's been unable to get any other kind of job. He is a man with nothing to lose and when he learns from his passenger about the activities of the corrupt Domon, a man who symbolises the society that has spit him out, he becomes a natural ally. And a much more formidable an opponent than their pursuers ever imagined.
Kamikaze Taxi's numerous references to kamikaze warfare bring to mind the similar theme in Takeshi Kitano's Brother. Kitano's film could be seen as a kamikaze parable, but uses it as little more than plot structure. Harada on the other hand makes the kamikaze spirit but one aspect of his characters' psyches, preferring them to be above all human, but more specifically Japanese. Kamikaze Taxi asks the question of what it means to be Japanese and why some people are excluded from being just that. Those who emphasise their Japanese identity are in fact morally corrupt, while those whose simple wish it is to be part of Japanese society find themselves opposed from all sides. With the cab driver's decision to fight Tatsuo's fight for him, he confronts the proud with their own shortcomings, just as director Harada confronts his countrymen with theirs. Harada also refers to Japan's wartime past on several occasions, not shunning to highlight the less than honourable episodes, such as the still-touchy subject of comfort women (he would continue to raise the matter in 1997's Bounce Ko Gals).
Perhaps owing to Harada's relative distance and detachedness from his homeland (he lived and worked in the US as a journalist and filmmaker for many years) Kamikaze Taxi is remarkably frank and open in its criticism of the less wholesome aspects of Japan. They are aspects which are generally hidden from the outsider's view and as such the film reveals a side of the country which is totally unknown to many. Add to this the fact that it also manages to be engaging and entertaining at the same time, and you have yourself one highly recommended piece of cinema.