Friday, October 16, 2009
REVIEW: Young Thugs: Nostalgia
(Kishiwada shōnen gurentai: Bōkyō)
Running time: 94 min.
Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr
In “Young Thugs: Nostalgia,” Takashi Miike tries his hand at yet another genre: the coming-of-age story. Family, children and childhood are all elements often featured in his films, but this one is entirely devoted to the life and times of a young boy growing up amid violence, friendship and sex in Osaka in the transition from 1969 to 1970.
The pint-sized star Yuki Nagata steals the show as the tough, spunky urchin Riichi. Black-and-white, home movie-style flashbacks show his birth and early relationship with his father (Naoto Takenaka), a swaggering loser who brings abuse upon his wife and son. Riichi leads a scrappy life in his small home town, constantly getting into fights with bullies. One day, when he comes home with fresh battle scars, his grandfather throws him a celebratory party, and he becomes the centre of pride – just so long as he promises that he beat up his foes just as bad as they did him. While treading his rocky path to manhood, he becomes mildly infatuated with his teacher Miss Ito (Saki Takaoka), who is pretty, but not afraid to give him a smack when he gets too smart with her. Along with the routines and distractions of his home and neighborhood, Riichi also gets caught up in the excitement surrounding the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, teaming up with his buddies to build a huge model of the space probe.
“Young Thugs: Nostalgia” is kind-of like Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” but re-located to Japan and injected with more grittiness and dark humor. While it addresses the serious issue of domestic violence through Riichi’s father’s rough rule over the family and the mother’s consequent, reoccurring retreats from the house, the film compensates with Miike’s tried-and-true style of absurdist humor. For example, in a scene in which Riichi’s father abuses his wife in front of a concerned Miss Ito, who also receives some of his wrath, the grandfather decides to teach his son a lesson in manners by shoving a broom handle…well, where the sun don’t shine. There are many other similar comedic bits, including Riichi vomiting into his recorder during music class and the use of Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack during the bully battles.
But far more than a mere entertainment, “Young Thugs: Nostalgia” contains moments of real gravity. In the sad aftermath of a friend’s grandmother’s death, Miike summons suitably forlorn images: a dog lying dead in a field, a worn red flag flapping in the wind. Some of Riichi’s mother’s humiliation is strongly felt when the stripper lady friend his father brought home the previous night dares to ask her for seconds at breakfast. More than anything else, the film truly succeeds when tracking Riichi’s gradual discovery of what it really means to be a man. Words of wisdom from his grandfather, angry outbursts towards his father, attempts to journey across Japan, encounters with locals like the man who, sitting by the sea, sketches mountains from his memory and, of course, his romantic (or merely sex-crazed) pursuit of Miss Ito all impart important messages of pride, patriotism and dignity to young Riichi.
“Young Thugs: Nostalgia” is in fact a prequel to another film Miike made the previous year entitled “Young Thugs: Innocent Blood,” also featuring Riichi. While it certainly made me intrigued to see what new adventures await him, “Nostalgia” also works remarkably well as a standalone film, and really, I’d still be quite content if it was the little punk’s sole cinematic outing. A portrait of a bruised childhood, it just might be one of Miike’s most heartfelt films.
Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog.