Judge Joel Pearce returns to the mean streets of Osaka to review this prequel to Young Thugs: Innocent Blood.
"It's no use trying to reason with an idiot" -Riichi
Director Takashi Miike cites Young Thugs: Nostalgia as his favorite of his own extensive list of films. I can understand why. Even though this prequel came only a year after Young Thugs: Innocent Blood, it is a far more mature film, and one that I can recommend heartily. It's a delightful mix of comedy and tragedy, and it does a fantastic job of filling out the backstories of the characters that we came to know in the first film.
Facts of the Case
This film takes place long before the first film of the series, and follows Riichi as he meets the group that will eventually become his close friends. It is 1969, there are riots at universities all over the globe and the world watches as Apollo 11 heads for the Moon. Riichi lives in a crappy part of Osaka, which is just starting to become industrialized. This air of change is beginning to reach his family as well, and it's becoming clear that his irresponsible grandfather and philandering, abusive father will themselves need to change in order to belong in this new society.
While the first film in the series never really came together, Young Thugs: Nostalgia has been very carefully constructed, with each aspect of the film connecting to the others in meaningful ways. In what is primarily a coming of age story, Miike has done an excellent job of contrasting the changes in Japanese society with those in Riichi's life. Even though it has had little real effect on our society overall, the first manned landing on the moon was a major pinnacle of human achievement. Japan was pressing for quick industrialization in order to compete with the other major world markets. This new way of life came quickly for the inhabitants of areas like Osaka, and they weren't really ready for it. Things largely carry on in the world of these characters as they always had. The same four strippers work at the local dance joint, Riichi's father and grandfather are still deadbeat thugs, and his mother works hard at a local factory. Riichi goes to school, where he is bullied by neighborhood children, and befriended by a teacher from Tokyo who seems to expect things to be the same in Osaka.
Just as the world is changing, so is Riichi's life and his own understanding of his place in the world. The first time we see Riichi in Young Thugs: Nostalgia, he is already hanging out with Yuji, although he doesn't seem to have any other friends. He has not yet become the tough thug that we know he ultimately will become, but rather finds himself on the bad end of the stick quite a bit. Over time, these two befriend Kotetsu, a lonely boy who has been charged with taking care of his elderly and quite crazy grandmother. The three boys are unhappy where they are, and decide to run away from Osaka. They change their minds after they have walked for a day and realize they have forgotten to bring food. Their return home means more than it seems to, since we know that these boys will probably never be able to escape their neighborhood and heritage. On their return, they decide to enter a local contest in order to win Kotetsu's grandmother some paints. Through the work that they put into this project, they begin to realize the kind of power they can have in the community if they are willing to be tougher than all the other kids.
The lightness of the violence in most parts of this film is in sharp contrast to the harsh violence in Young Thugs: Innocent Blood. The boys are still children at this point, and although they often walk around black and blue, there are no scenes of street brawls matching the viciousness of the baseball-bat-wielding adult version of Riichi. When our young heroes become stronger at the end and win, here we are still able to cheer them; in the first film, it was sad to see the lives in which they were trapped. The only exceptions to this are the few scenes of domestic violence in Riichi's home. They are like no other part of the Young Thugs movies, and have serious implications for the lives of the characters.
While there is not nearly as much violence in this second volume of the series, Young Thugs: Nostalgia has a great deal more sexual content, which helps to focus the film as a coming-of-age story. The first time we see Riichi and Yuji, they are looking at dirty magazines (blacked out in true Japanese fashion) and arguing about how sex works. Neither boy is old enough yet to notice the attentions of Ryoko, Riichi's girlfriend from the second film, who here experiences her first period (and who already seems quite taken with our young hero). Instead, he is infatuated with his teacher, drawn to her more developed figure. Riichi's curiosity is echoed in other parts of the film, especially in the scenes with the strippers. Although there is a good deal of sexual content, Miike is careful not to violate the boundaries of good taste in this film, using this as an opportunity to show his more thoughtful side.
As with most of his films, Young Thugs: Nostalgia is a nice film to look at. While it still feels somewhat rough, the cinematography is both skillful and inventive. It's pleasantly subtle too, and the film has more depth than it initially seems to have. The music has been carefully chosen, capturing both the location and era of the story.
I was also very impressed by the performances. Making a film with children in major roles is always risky—especially in a low budget film on a tight time schedule. Each of these young performers does a perfect job, though; not only acting naturally and sincerely, but also perfectly matching the characters in the first film. Riichi develops a great deal throughout the film, changing from an innocent wimp into the tough leader that we knew he would grow into. The adults do well also, never taking the spotlight away from the children. They are alternately comedic, frightening and pathetic, just as they would be seen through the eyes of the young protagonists.
ArtsmagicDVD has done just as good of a job with this second installment of the series as they did with the first. The picture has been restored as carefully as possible, and the anamorphic transfer is completely watchable. At times it seems a little drab, but I think that's as much an artistic choice as it is a problem with the source print. The sound seems slightly better this time, but that could be due to the lack of big action scenes with lots of reverb. The stereo track is a solid choice, but the 5.1 track seems to add a bit of depth without destroying the front soundstage. The dialogue is quite crisp, and the subtitles are flawless.
The extras on this disc are almost the same as those on the first volume of the series. There is another interview with Takashi Miike, this one far more interesting as he talks about what he was trying to accomplish when he developed the film. It runs for about 15 minutes, and includes a number of interesting topics. Aside from that, there is not a whole lot on the disc. This time, instead of a cultural history of Osaka, we get a featurette on "the people of Osaka," hosted by the same woman. Her speaking style is just as dull as it was last time, but there is more information here about the population of Osaka than you could ever want to know. I have heard so many jokes and comments about Osakans in the Japanese films that I have seen, but this is the first time that a DVD has tried to explain this unique city in any depth.
Even if you passed over Young Thugs: Innocent Blood, this prequel is definitely worth checking out. It is the more sensitive side of Miike's work at its best, and well worth checking out for either fans of his work or fans of coming-of-age stories. This doesn't cover much material that hasn't been handled before, but it is done with creativity and sincerity here. This is a highly personal film, and it's always wonderful to get such a pure glimpse into a director's mind and heart. Even if it's this twisted. This ArtsmagicDVD release is a fine way to watch it, too.
Young Thugs: Nostalgia avoids all of the pitfalls of its predecessor. It's not my favorite Takashi Miike film, but it is one bizarre yet touching coming-of-age story, full of wacky humor and heartfelt human moments. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Takashi Miike
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