Young thugs beat free tonight; but time is on Judge Joel Pearce's side.
"How many times do I have to learn that I've made a mistake only when it's too late?"—Riichi
Although it's certainly not one of his best, Young Thugs: Innocent Blood is yet another crazy cinematic ride from everyone's favorite wild-man Japanese cult director, Takashi Miike. This and its sister film, Nostalgia, are apparently autobiographical to a certain extent, which may begin to explain why some specific themes pervade his films.
Facts of the Case
Four friends graduate from high school after causing trouble together for years. Their leader is Riichi, a very tough guy who also is the love of Ryoko, the only girl in the group. The other two boys are Kotetsu, who begins working at a restaurant of the local boss, and Yuji, who seems too nice to really fit in with the others. Their friendships continue after school until Riichi runs into an old flame. He quickly latches onto her, dumps Ryoko and causes rifts in his friendships that pull all four of them apart.
Unfortunately, the expectations for Riichi are quite different in this new relationship—he is now expected to give up fighting and some of his other unsavory activities. It's not easy to just stop, though, and all four friends are in constant motion towards an inevitable tragedy.
I often find Miike's movies hard to pin down. Many of them draw in quite a few disparate elements, and they don't always blend as well as they could. In some of his movies, this works to his advantage, because we never quite know where he is going to take us next. In this case, however, things never come together in a meaningful or entertaining way. That's not to say that Young Thugs: Innocent Blood doesn't have a number of fantastic moments—it does. The action scenes have that sudden viciousness that we have come to expect from his films, and manage to be powerful, surprising and entertaining, all at the same time. There are a number of really touching moments as well, interspersed with some genuinely good laughs.
The problem lies in how these good moments are connected within the film as a whole. By the end we are supposed to be frightened for Riichi when he fights, but the action at the beginning is so far-fetched and over-the-top that it simply doesn't have the gravity it needs. While there are touching moments, they are placed so close to the silly scenes that they also lack the impact they should have. When the big tragedy finally does arrive, the humor in it undermines both the suspense that has led up to it and the grieving of the other characters afterward. As a result, the whole film feels sloppy and rushed. It's told in a highly non-linear way, which could have worked well if its purpose was clear. Some of the scenes are crafted so well that it seems odd when you suddenly hit a long, boring section that doesn't really advance the plot or characters.
It's a shame, especially considering that the story and actors deserved to be in a far better film. Each of the major characters are well-developed and well-performed. None of them are exemplary people, yet it's impossible not to be drawn into their conflicts and struggles. Even though their pranks are cruel, they seem sincere enough that their lives are always believable. This is especially true of Riichi, who seems like a bastard at first, but gradually comes into focus as he makes mistakes and has to live with their consequences. All of the things that he goes through are just part of the way of life for young thugs living in Osaka. There aren't really many other options open to them. The extreme nature of the violence at the beginning of the film makes this all the more clear. At first, everything about this situation seems silly and overly dramatic. As the film continues, though, it's obvious that Riichi and his friends are simply normal kids growing up in a tough place. They sort things out in the only way they know how.
I have already pointed out several times in my reviews for this site how impressed I am with Miike's ability to produce so many films. In cases like this, though, I kind of wish he had spent the time and resources to make a film as tightly crafted as Audition. Young Thugs: Innocent Blood is solid, but it feels like it should have accomplished so much more.
The transfer of the disc is not quite as impressive as some of the other ArtsmagicDVD offerings I have seen recently, but I think that has a lot more to do with the source material than the transfer. The picture, presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, lacks detail and seems somewhat desaturated. That said, the black levels are good, and there are surprisingly few digital or print flaws. It looks as good as a direct-to-video flick from mid-'90s Japan is likely to look. The sound is acceptable as well. There is a stereo track, which is clearly the original sound mix, and which does the job just fine. There is also a Dolby 5.1 surround track, which muddies up the dialogue and echoes some of the sound in the rear channels. Overall, either one is acceptable. The subtitles are timed well and flow smoothly.
The highlight of the special features is an interview with Miike about the making of the film. He is a very articulate director, and it is obvious that he remembers this period of his career with a lot of fondness. This film and its sequel come out of his own experiences growing up in Osaka, which makes them seem more personal than his other work. The other major extra is a brief presentation on the history and culture of Osaka, which is quite interesting; but it seems to have little to add to the experience of watching Young Thugs: Innocent Blood. Still, this is the kind of cultural explanation that I often wish others would include on DVDs of foreign films.
Although it is fundamentally flawed, Young Thugs: Innocent Blood makes for an entertaining watch with a number of excellent moments. Fans of Miike will definitely want to give it at least a rent, and it's great to see some of his smaller films hit North America. Others may want to give this one a rental first, though. If you have yet to be introduced to the work of Takashi Miike, Audition or Happiness of the Katakuris may be a better introduction.
Not guilty, though I wish Young Thugs: Innocent Blood had been given a bit more time in the editing room.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Takashi Miike
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