Young Thugs: Nostalgia Review

The film adaptations of Riichi Nakaba’s semi-autobiographical Kishiwda Shonen Gurentai novels were a labour of love for the Osakan film production company Yoshimoto Kogyo, and their series got off to an impressive start with two entertaining comedy-dramas from directors Kazuyuki Izutsu and Takashi Miike respectively. For their third entry in the series, the attention is switched from Nakaba’s young adult days to his childhood days, focussing specifically on the all-important transition into adolescence. Entitled; Bokyo - which translates as nostalgia for home - Miike was called upon one last time to capture the raucous Osakan spirit.


Osaka 1969. The World Expo is coming to town and Apollo 11 is making it’s way to the moon, but in Kishiwada the dysfunctional Nakaba family have got more pressing matters to deal with. The youngest member, Riichi (Shonosuke Shofukutei) is balancing a developing crush on the lovely Miss Ito (Saki Takaoka) and the frequent confrontations with his eternal nemesis Sada. The father Toshio (Naoto Takenaka) is having one of his usual mid-life crises and his selfish behaviour is getting too much for his wife to bear, so she decides enough is enough and packs her bags, causing further disruption to the household. As complicated as Riichi’s life may be, he isn’t the only one with family problems. His best friends Gasu and Kotetsu are also tired of life at home, so the boys decide that affirmative action must be taken if they want to see out the remaining days of their childhood in peace.

We’ve all seen our fair share of coming of age dramas over the years but what makes this one so special is the respect and attention Miike pays to the children. If you’ve seen a few of the director’s films you might have noticed the affection his characters tend to have for their childhood, so naturally here he’s completely in his element, revelling in a blissfully nostalgic haze as the Gospel of Osakan Childhood According to Miike is laid out with bravura. The very first shot indicates how highly the director regards the pre-puberty stage with a close up on a stained glass picture of the birth of Christ as tranquil harmonies hum in the background. We are then introduced to the young Riichi Nakaba, looking at some nude magazines and getting his first lesson in reproduction from his friend, Gasu (the reason for his superior knowledge on the opposite sex will be made hilariously clear later on in the film). Clearly these kids have already started to have a faint interest in the opposite sex but they’re still a long way from puberty just yet because they’re soon engaged in a bawdy brawl with local juvenile gang leader, Sada. As frivolous and amusing as they may appear, these confrontations with Sada are in fact central to the themes of the Kishiwada films, providing a rich symbol of the idyll of childhood and as such Miike plays them out in a romantic, comic book style with wildly exaggerated weaponry and some brilliantly observed lampooning of macho culture. Like the epic Spaghetti Western score that plays over all their confrontations or the fashion sense and body language of the young rascals that perfectly recreate the Yakuza thug stereotype. In fact Miike maintains this childish point of view completely through the film, ensuring that the subject remains totally consistent and respectful of it’s young protagonists and enriching the dramatics in a way that the usual twee tone adults adopt for children’s stories never could, it’s a perfect symbiosis of style and form. Mind you, it’s difficult to shake off a reputation for explicit violence so I’d expect a lot of people will read the words “Takashi Miike” and “Young Thugs” and think they’re in for a nasty little film exploiting children, certainly the first film he directed in this series has it’s fair share of bloodshed but Young Thug: Nostalgia features only tame scenes of violence with no blood spilled onscreen, all the children’s fights cut away before anyone comes to blows, with the wounds present on their battered bodies filling in the blanks.


You only have to look at the adults that surround these children to see why the youngsters are such a rowdy bunch and just how deeply this romantic notion of violence and loutish behaviour is engrained into Osakan culture. After Riichi’s first violent encounter with Sada his parents not only fail to reprimand him for fighting but actually applaud his toughness. To them it shows he’s becoming a strong man, so they do what any dysfunctional parent would, they get the poor kid blind drunk! Although they may seem reckless, the reasons for their eccentric form of parenting are best conveyed through the main adult figure in the film, Toshio. Riichi’s father is pretty much the male archetype in the Kishiwada series, a grown man who simply refuses to accept the reality and responsibilities of adult life. His progress through the film contrasts heavily with his son’s, whereas Riichi is at first hesitant to make the move into adolescence Toshio seems desperate to regain his. At the start of the film we see him engrossed in the news reports of violent disturbance among student protestors and you can clearly tell that Toshio longs to be there mixing it up with them. Likewise his behaviour towards his family is generally obnoxious and petulant, frequently talking down to his wife and at one point he even comes home drunk with his lover in tow and spends the night with her in the family home. Naturally this causes much tension within his marriage and one of the ongoing gags of the film is the frequency that Riichi’s mom leaves home in tears, but she can never bring herself to leave her husband for good and inevitably returns each time. Completing the family unit is Toshio’s father, another adult who simply cannot let go of his childish ways but in a much more endearing, harmless way. He’s just a happy-go-lucky dreamer who spends most of his days stealing strawberries, throwing parties for his elderly friends and setting off fireworks near their housing complex, but we are given little hints that in his younger days he was a violent hellraiser just like his son and grandson. The only other major elderly character in the film is the senile grandmother of Riichi’s friend, Kotetsu. She is yet another adult who seems to be longing for her youthful days with her one lucid memory being of a set of paint crayons she lost when she was a child and each day she scours the riverbank looking for what was lost long ago. She may be just a fringe character but she provides perhaps the most tragic viewpoint of the nostalgic Osakan condition.

Although Young Thugs: Nostalgia is very much male orientated the sole beacon of normal, mature adult behaviour is in fact a woman. Riichi’s beautiful young homeroom teacher Miss Ito is the one adult that maintains an authoritative relationship with the young scamp. The reason for her difference is made clear when Sada and his rabble poke fun of her silly accent - she’s not from Osaka, but Tokyo and as such brings with her a rather different set of social values. Ito is a very important character within the story because not only does she highlight the differences between Osakan and more mainstream Japanese values, but she also becomes Riichi’s first love interest and it’s through her respectful interaction with him that he starts to mature emotionally as well. This culminates in a phase where Riichi becomes completely disillusioned with his topsy-turvy home life, so together with his best friends Kotetsu and Gasu they embark on a journey that is really more a last ditch effort to cling on to their childlike innocence than an attempt to leave home for good. Needless to say, their naivety soon cuts this escapade short when their funds run out just a couple of days into the trip. Stranded at a distant harbour, Riichi bumps into a painter by the shore (the real Riichi Nakaba making an apt cameo appearance), sitting staring out at the ocean but drawing a picturesque mountain landscape, complete with a cosy country cottage. He informs Riichi that the picture is something he remembers, and when Riichi asks why he’s drawing this he replies, “So much has happened now, and I cannot go back”. The sentiment is clear and this helps Riichi realise that they will not find what they’re after on this journey, growth and change is an inevitable part of life and his epiphany represents the turning point in the story when the young boys finally start to embrace their burgeoning maturity.


The changes facing the children also reflects the changes facing Osaka at the time because the film is set during the months leading up to the 1970 World Expo. This was the first time the event had ever been held in Asia and Osaka was the hosting city. It attracted over 64million visitors, making it the most successful world fair ever, even to this day, and proved to be an important step in the modernisation of Japan. So the tail end of 1969 was very much a time when the Osaka natives were facing immense social and economic upheaval in their lives, particularly given their somewhat old-fashioned sensibilities. It’s perhaps most obvious during the scenes in the city where Toshio’s mistress is working in a dingy but intimate strip joint, Miike gives us a brief glimpse into the attitudes of the working populace by lingering on the back stage discussions of the strippers. The theme of the 1970 Expo was “Progress and Harmony for Mankind”, yet in regards to their outlook on life; the adults in Riichi’s family and the small community around them in general make absolutely no progress whatsoever throughout the film. They remain entrenched within their own closed social bubble where recklessness and aggressiveness are laudable traits and it’s amusing that Miike accompanies certain family scenes with television coverage of the 1969 student riots, particularly Toshio’s scenes. While some are thinking of the message of the upcoming Expo, Toshio is more fascinated by the student riots, and when his son disappears off on his little rites of passage journey from home he embarks on his own little sentimental journey of reminiscence towards his youth, a desperate attempt to ignore any possible maturity he needs to make as an adult. Another companion to Riichi’s growth and development is the television and radio coverage of the Apollo 11 Moon Landings which is brought to the fore during Riichi’s little Osaka excursion, providing some rich symbolism of their journey into adolescence. There’s an amusing little scene where the young boys bump into an eccentric conman selling fake telescopes. At first the kids mock him for selling such flimsy products, but they soon stop and listen when he shouts, “Even the captain of Apollo 11 isn’t going to stay on the moon forever you know! He’s going to come home soon and if you don’t see it now you’ll always regret it”, just one of the many great little humorous and poignant exchanges that typify this delightful film.

Whoever said that you should never work with children or animals had obviously never met Takashi Miike because he seems to excel in getting naturalistic performances out of young casts. Here in Nostalgia the children are generally excellent, fitting into their roles perfectly and handling the farce with startling maturity. Paramount to all this is Shonosuke Shofukutei, who could give Haley Joel Osment a run for his money in the eerily mature child performer stakes. Backing up the little prodigies is the ubiquitous character actor and long time Miike regular, Naoto Takenaka. Toshio isn’t the nicest guy in the film but he is strangely likeable and that’s mostly thanks to Naoto’s great performance, getting the balance of immature petulance and non-threatening menace just right. He’s never too intense during the more boisterous scenes and infuses plenty of much needed humour into the character with his deft comic timing and physicality. Adding some much needed femininity to proceedings are Yuki Nagata, playing the downtrodden mother of Riichi and Saki Takaoka, who puts in a fine performance as Miss Ito. Setsuko Karasuma is also amusing as Toshio’s elderly father.

Young Thugs: Nostalgia is a superb comedy drama that perfectly captures a stage in human development when a little magic disappears from all our lives forever. There aren’t many directors who could make a film that conveys a child’s outlook on life so effectively and it’s testament to Miike’s wild imagination and skilful versatility as a dramatic director.


Presentation

Presented anamorphically at roughly 1.75:1 this is a pleasing transfer, windowboxed to eliminate any picture info lost by TV overscan. The image isn’t particularly sharp but detail levels are adequate, and colours are strong. Contrast and brightness levels are perhaps just a teeny bit high but it looks like the film has been a little over-processed anyway resulting in slightly pale skin tones. Compression is surprisingly good although artefacts resulting from noise reduction do creep into the image from time to time, as does that old familiar static noise that’s apparent in all ArtsmagicDVD’s transfers. What’s most pleasing is that the majority of niggles that plagued the previous film in this series; Young Thugs: Innocent Blood, are gone. There are no composite video processing errors present, so the picture has a more filmy look and print damage is rather minimal with only the odd fleck or scratch appearing regularly throughout, certainly nothing too distracting. There is just one area where the image isn’t an improvement over Innocent Blood’s and that’s the horrible thick low frequency Edge Enhancement applied throughout - you can’t fail to notice it on modest displays let alone large ones.


As with their Young Thugs: Innocent Blood DVD there’s a choice of Japanese DD2.0 Surround or Japanese DD5.1 and, just like last time it is the 2.0 surround track that proves to be the only real option because once again we have a horrid, monofied 5.1 remix with the same sound coming out of every speaker. It does sound fuller than the 2,0 track, with very deep bass and it is also clear of the audio hiss that plagued their Innocent Blood DVD, but it’s still not enough to compensate for some really shoddy remixing. In comparison the DD2.0 surround is warm and involving, with cleaner dialogue reproduction and some surprisingly effective use of the rear channels.

Optional English subtitles are included with no spelling or grammatical errors I can recall. It’s worth noting that I had seen this film with an alternative translation before and while I cannot say which is the more accurate, I certainly enjoyed the translation present on this disc much more, because it does a better job conveying all the little word gags and inadvertent puns the characters make.


Extras

ArtsmagicDVD have followed the blueprint of their Innocent Blood DVD by providing a small but worthwhile selection of extras. First up is a 14minute interview with Takashi Miike who is as amiable as ever and talks about his personal feelings for the film and how it was a warm and friendly shoot for all. He also imparts some observations on the film’s biggest star Naoto Takenaka and discusses the themes of Nostalgia, saying that he never set out to specifically investigate this theme but that it came out naturally through his own personal sentiments as a director. Next is a 9minute featurette on Osaka People, written and presented by Takako Tucker it gives us a more personal glimpse into Osakan culture and the different attitudes here compared to the rest of the Japan. There’s also plenty of name-dropping as Takakao reveals the city’s more famous residents of past and future. The rest of the extra materials are more standard fluff features like the original film trailer and sleeve artwork (complete with handy translations) and the usual Bio/Filmographies.


Overall

With its rich characterisation, wry outlook on Osakan culture and endearing depiction of childhood, Young Thugs: Nostalgia is an extremely rewarding film experience and it’s no surprise that it’s Miike’s personal favourite among his large body of work. It’s taken a long time to see the light of day here in the west so I’m happy to report that ArtsmagicDVD have provided a solid looking transfer and some informative extras, but the film alone is well worth the money.


Film
9 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
5 out of 10
Overall

TDF SILVER

9

out of 10

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