Considering the sheer volume of his output, it may never be possible for any viewer, either in Japan or abroad, to take in the complete resume of director Takashi Miike. As of this writing, the Internet Movie Database lists a whopping 61 movies where Miike is credited as director, with another movie currently in pre-production. With the growing attention Miike has received in recent years, more and more of his work has been seen outside Japan, giving fans a better understanding of his remarkable career and range.
English distributor Artsmagic has seen fit to release a pair of Miike’s more obscure works in the form of the “Young Thugs” (“Kishiwada shonen gurentai”) films. Set in and around the industrial seaside city of Osaka, the films are based on the “Young Thugs” novels by Riichi Nakaba, who appears briefly in both movies. Ostensibly Nakaba’s autobiographical retelling of his youth, both movies are rich in mundane everyday details and ordinary characters that simply live and work. The same could be said of Miike’s other movies, but “Young Thugs” gives Miike fans a break from the usual parade of sociopathic killers and copious volumes of human excrement, blood and secretions.
Set in the late 1970’s, “Innocent Blood” introduces us to school friends Riichi and Yuji (brothers/comedy team Hiroshi and Yasushi Chihara), Ryoko (Sarina Suzuki) and Kotetsu (Kyosuke Yabem, “Dead or Alive”) during their first year of life after high school. Riichi is the consummate alpha male troublemaker, always getting into fights, most of which he starts. The character spends a good portion of the movie with various bruises and cuts adorning his face. But he’s a good fighter and that helps him out when he gets a part-time job as a street vendor/hired muscle for neighborhood thug Isami. As for the rest of the friends, Kotetsu is dragged off to prison by half of the Osaka police force after an incident with a spear gun. Yuji just seems to hang around, never doing anything too exciting or too stupid. Ryoko is the out-of-place girl in the group. Once just school friends, she and Riichi start seeing each other and she displays a tremendous amount of patience with her bullheaded and not-too-bright boyfriend.
Things change, as they invariably do. Kotetsu gets an early release and ends up working for Isami along with Riichi, where they both become infatuated with waitress Naohmi. Riichi ends up with her, but finds that the cost of acting on his impulses has alienated him from the rest of his friends. He’s also supremely dissatisfied with the life he’s chosen and is compelled to change his ways.
“Innocent Blood” finds Takashi Miike on different ground, away from the usual assortment of gangsters, psychos, and degenerates that usually populate his films. Here is a movie with heart, dealing with real people who have problems and tribulations that an average viewer can relate to. It’s a change of pace for the man behind such spectacles as the “Dead or Alive” Trilogy and “Fudoh: The New Generation”. As Martin Scorsese did in “Mean Streets” (this movie’s closest analog), Miike is telling a personal story set in his and writer Riichi Nakaba’s hometown of Osaka.
As depicted in “Innocent Blood,” Osaka is a world of blue-collar values and brutal violence, but it’s nevertheless home to these people and the source of many cherished memories. The life that these young thugs lead is mundane and not all that exciting, but it’s filled with the emotional landmarks associated with youth and youthful indiscretions. However, it’s this everyday sensibility that may leave some viewers wanting. The nature of the story dictates that it isn’t going to contain any major earthshaking events and the characters, while outrageous at times, are normal and believable, and are no different from the roster of characters you’d see in any rough and tough neighborhood from Osaka to Brooklyn to South Central L.A.
However, this is still a Miike movie, and even without his name on the credits, touches of his unique style pervade the movie. The street violence is shocking and sudden, made all the more brutal by the realism of the settings. This is a world where the act of walking down the street with your date can result in a beat down where the two of you are left bloody and writhing in pain. Riichi is an almost fanatical troublemaker, but he rarely gets out of his scuffles clean.
Befitting Miike’s fascination with cinematic pain and suffering, Hiroshi Chihara spends a good amount of his time onscreen bruised and cut. Miike’s touch is also obvious in the movie’s finale, which features such an oddly tragic and comic turn of events that you genuinely are left wondering if the events are embellished or not.
Takashi Miike (director)
CAST: Koji Chihara