Japanese cinema has long had an interest in rebellious youth. As far back as the 1950s they produced dramas that centred on kids hanging out at the beach, listening to jazz and exhibiting a more open attitude to sex. In the following decade the Nikkatsu studio pushed the genre as far as the censors would allow, with strong violence, rape and extreme antisocial behaviour. Tetsuya Mariko’s latest slice of grim, unflinching reality has several nods to the past — those familiar with the classic Branded to Kill will pick up on several cues — but filters a classic tale of teen angst through a constant barrage of excessive violence that is brutal and confronting.
Taira (the excellent Yûya Yagira) can only find excitement through fighting; getting beaten and beating others brings him ecstasy, but he is always left down and out and in a bloody mess. When we meet Taira he’s stalking around the city picking his victims at random, running up to strangers and attacking them. He claims to have rules, although these are never established and revealed, and his actions draw in a young high school student, Yuya, and together the two embark on as much destruction and anarchy as possible. These arcs of violence are interspersed with Taira’s brother heading into the city to find his missing sibling, and we meet a nightclub worker, Nana, whose presence plays a major part in how all of this escalating chaos will end.
Mariko doesn’t present any flashy martial arts or the stylised visuals we usually see from Far Eastern cinema; these are messy, nasty assaults. Noses break, skin splits, faces bruise. This is a very violent film, possibly a turn-off for some, but for others it will be profoundly effective, and for those keen on the cinema of Takashi Miike and Shinya (Tetsuo) Tsukamoto it will hold much appeal. And while the climax of Destruction Babies can never pay off the build-up that precedes it, Mariko does attempt to find a contrast between the actions of his two young protagonists: Taira uses violence as a personal way to help him feel alive and connected to the world, whereas Yuya uses it as a genuine antisocial rampage. The finale is a coming-of-age festival that suggests adulthood is a way of challenging your fellow man. Or maybe Mariko is suggesting we need to fight society to survive?
Brilliantly shot and with superb performances throughout, Destruction Babies is Tetsuya Mariko’s fourth film in six years, and he is rapidly establishing himself as a major act in modern Japanese exploitation. Like his previous effort Yellow Kid, his work expresses genuine concern about contemporary society, and is deliberately dark and troubling. And you feel that, if he can just tone it down a little and present more depth to his harsh vision, his next feature may well be a true classic of the genre.
3 February 2017