Young Thugs: Nostalgia (1998) Movie Review

“Nostalgia” revisits Riichi Nakaba in younger times, though by no means are they more innocent. Director Takashi Miike starts things off with a bang as he treats the audience to a merry little black-and-white flashback complete with festival music where we witness Riichi’s birth and the joy it brings to his father Toshi. Not so much that Toshi has become a father, but that the baby is boy and he wins the bet he had going with his friends. We also learn that Riichi is named after a hand in mahjong, and if it’s not obvious already, this kid was kind of screwed from the get go.

The story proper starts when grade schooler Riichi and Yuji are flipping through porn mags and find themselves the target of bullies led by arch nemesis Sada (who tangled with Riichi more than once in “Innocent Blood”). Sada promptly jumps them using a clever combination of fireworks and bike chains. When Riichi comes home bloody and bruised (better get used to it, kid), but nevertheless victorious, his parents and grandfather decide to throw a drunken party to celebrate Riichi’s entry into manhood. As a reward, the little boy gets his first taste of sake.

When Riichi shows up in close all banged up the next day, it gets the attention of his teacher Miss Maki, who decides a visit to Riichi’s home is warranted. Riichi’s mother greets her calmly and politely, while Grandpa is obviously infatuated. When Toshio shows up, he makes no secret of his distaste for this over educated and slightly prissy young woman before Grandpa teaches him a lesson that he unfortunately forgets all too quickly. Things get really ugly, however, when Toshio shows up at home drunk after a night out with his stripper mistress. This proves to be the last draw for Riichi’s mother, who promptly packs up and leaves. Problem is, she’s the only one in the family who was working, which prompts Dad and Grandpa to start making counterfeit medicine to sell for food and sake money.

As much as “Innocent Blood” proved to be an atypical Miike film, “Nostalgia” is even more of a shock for viewers familiar with Miike’s usual output. “Nostalgia” is an example of the well-worn “coming of age” story. As in the case of other stories that cover the genre (“My Life As A Dog” and “Stand By Me” to name just a few), “Nostalgia” at times feels unfocused, and there is no one major story arc that we see from the start all the way to a satisfactory resolution.

“Nostalgia” is also very episodic in nature as it hops around to tell not only the story of Riichi as he prepares for middle school, but also the marital troubles of his parents, his friend Kotetsu’s mentally disintegrating grandmother, and the well-meaning but ultimately unhappy Miss Maki. Those are a lot of elements to juggle, and while the story could have ultimately fallen apart into a pile of disparate storylines, Miike pulls it off. Miike’s knack for injecting meaningful shades of characterization into the lowliest of minor characters manages to make each of the characters memorable and likable, even borderline sociopath/future Riichi Nakata punching bag Sada, who manages to make the painfully bad period costume of sweater vests and flared jeans look menacing.

The performances Miike draws from the younger members of the cast are especially good and puts the adults to shame. In particular, the very broad overacting on the part of V-cinema and Miike veteran Naoto Takenaka, which is a chore to watch. The character itself isn’t all that likable and is nothing more than a caricature of the hard-drinking, hard-gambling, and shiftless bad dad. However, Naoto plays Toshi as just a loud and obnoxious tool, prone to shouting up close at people and making faces when he isn’t drunk or chain smoking. It’s like a bad photocopy of a better performance, either by him in another movie, or by another actor altogether.

Takashi Miike (director)
Cast: Naoto Takenaka
Saki Takaoka
Yuki Nagata
Shonusuke Shofukutei

Buy Young Thugs: Nostalgia on DVD