Riichi (Yuki Nagata) is a boy growing up in 1969 Japan. His father (Naoto Takenaka) is low-level yakuza with a penchant for adultery and violence. His mother (Setsuko Karasuma) regularly leaves their house in disgust, only to randomly returns days – if not weeks – later. In the lead-up to Apollo 11 moon landings, Riichi goes through a series of encounters that lead him to re-evaluate his life and pass through some life-changing experiences.
Young Thugs: Nostalgia is, in fact, a prequel. Adapted from the autobiographical novel by Riichi Nakaba, Takashi Miike’s coming-of-age drama focuses on the same protagonist as his 1997 drama Young Thugs: Innocent Blood. Despite that link, Nostalgia functions perfectly well on its own. It is an odd, somewhat off-kilter film that fits very comfortably among Miike’s earlier feature works. It is a traditional story told with a peculiar edge.
In the world of Young Thugs, groups of children don’t just fight each other after school. They engage in full-scale urban brawls, armed with metal bars, lengths of chain, and brass knuckles. When they confront one another the score is that of a spaghetti western. When Riichi successfully beats up the local bully, bloodying himself in the process, he is rewarded with a party at home in his honour where his father all-but force-feeds him sake. The following morning, in what has to stand as one of the most impressively repugnant sound effects I have heard, a hungover Riichi throws up into his recorder in music class. It is that kind of a movie: rough, gross, but oddly heart-warming at the same time.
Yuki Nagata gives a very relaxed and naturalistic performance as Riichi, as he goes through a series of small-scale adventures. He develops a slight crush on his school teacher Miss Ito (Saki Takaoka), to the point of warning her actual boyfriend to treat her better. He and his friends decide to leave home and take a ferry halfway across Japan (like most childhood journeys, it ends faster than they plan). Riichi’s experiences are well grounded in late 1960s Japan, but at the same time they feel extraordinarily universal. He has a rough childhood for sure, but it is a childhood that the viewer will easily recognise.
Naoto Takenaka gives a wonderfully exaggerated, almost gleeful performance as Riichi’s good-for-nothing father. He works as caricature in part because he feels less like an actual person and more like a child’s memory of that person. He is over-the-top, often silly, and regularly unpleasant to be around, but in odd moments we see the affectionate and warm father peeking through. Another impressive performance comes from Matsunosuke Shofukutei as Riichi’s eccentric grandfather, who lights fireworks in a circle before screaming to the heavens in the hope of attracting astronaut Neil Armstrong’s attention.
Young Thugs: Nostalgia is allegedly Takashi Miike’s favourite among his own films. It isn’t difficult to see why, since it is indeed an act of nostalgia looking back to Miike’s own childhood as much as Riichi’s. It is a somewhat loose and messy film, without a particularly strong narrative through-line, but when it does work it is marvellous. It’s scattershot but amiable, and absolutely sparks with Miike’s own distinctive style.