The notion of Takashi Miike, Japan’s fearless gladiator of shock cinema, filming a coming-of-age drama without a hint of Yakuza mayhem might seem impossible. Miike is the rebel flick-fabricator behind “Dead or Alive,” “Audition,” and “Happiness of the Katakuris,” movies that discreetly hide in your blind spot then strike out like a cobra on PCP. Meanwhile, he’s a charismatic icon whose appetite for sunglasses of every size and shape rivals Imelda Marcos’ footwear fetish. Appearing part Terminator and part hard-rocker in his leather and shades, Miike epitomizes cyber-punk cool.
“Young Thugs: Nostalgia” reveals the gentle heart beating beneath Miike’s nihilistic, wild-man image. A prequel to his 1997 Osaka hooligan drama “Young Thugs: Innocent Blood,” it’s a relatively gentle foray into “Stand by Me” territory, following the sad routine of grade school-aged Riichi. Appearing as a Nippon version of sleepy-eyed Macaulay Culkin, Riichi spends his nights being slapped around by a hyperventilating, macho father (Naoto Takenaka). This complicates the neglected boy’s education: an early classroom scene shows Riichi puking into a flute during music rehearsal, after an all night binge session with his irresponsible elder. Taking note of his bruised face and hung-over manner, concerned teacher Miss Maki (Saki Takaoka) visits Riichi’s home, and is also abused by her pupil’s misogynistic, disrespectful old man. Thankfully, Riichi’s take-charge grandpa arrives on the scene, and curbs his mad-dog son with a well-aimed broomstick (“bamboo up the wazoo,” anyone?).
What follows is an involving coming of age drama that fans of Miike’s more famously violent films will see as a departure. Truth is, the director’s insanely prolific library of over 50 features contains numerous splatter-free entries, and aside from a couple of benign street brawls and domestic squabbles, “Young Thugs: Nostalgia” contains no “Ichi the Killer” caliber viscera. Instead, we follow Riichi as he weathers the domestic dysfunction of his family and takes solace in the camaraderie of friends.
There are no big moments here – but rather, a series of small vignettes. One touching story strand follows Riichi and several friends as they build a replica of the Apollo 11 space capsule (“Young Thugs: Nostalgia” is set in 1969, and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon acts as the film’s historical reference point). Their motive? To win a contest with the lunar replica, and use their reward to help a confused, Alzheimer’s stricken old woman. They might be hooligans, but these “Young Thugs” also have heart.
Miike peppers his film with hints of where his motley crew of irascible minors will end up. For instance, the turbulent romance between Riichi and girlfriend Ryoko that fuels “Young Thugs: Innocent Blood” is set up in a late scene.
Artsmagic DVD has packaged the film with a blood-spattered title logo and bat-wielding street punk on the cover, obviously attempting to lure gorehounds who associate Miike only with extreme violence. If killers and cadavers are your bag, skip the “Young Thugs” films and satisfy such crimson cravings elsewhere. However, if you want to examine Miike’s more restrained side, pick up this sentimental romp. Miike fans can also salivate over the disc’s extras, including a revealing interview with the director (who calls “Young Thugs: Nostalgia” his favorite movie) and a cultural documentary entitled, “Osaka People.”