Destruction Babies (Japan, 2016) [JFF2016AU]
After the genuine surprises of Keisuke Yoshida’s genre-bending romantic thriller Hime-anole (2016), I did not think there could be another film that would similarly shock me with its sheer execution and portrayal of violence on screen. That is until I watched a small-scale film with a blunt-force title, Destruction Babies. I not am familiar with the work of Tetsuya Mariko, but if his earlier work is as hard-hitting as Destruction Babies, you can bet I’ll be looking forward to catching up with it.
The film starts off at a port town where we first see 18-year-old-Taira (Yuya Yagira, looking nothing like an 18-year old) getting beaten up by a local gang. Looking for a hell of a beating (his own and others) is Taira’s form of excitement and ecstasy, and the film follows him to a nearby town where he goes through a series of fights that certainly leave an impression on everyone who watches. Taira is always left in a bloody pulp but always comes back from rock bottom. If anything, he becomes even stronger and more resilient as the night goes on.
Things take a strange turn when snot-nosed little brat Yuya (Masaki Suda) tags along with Taira; while Taira is a force of nature whose livelihood is dedicated to violence adhering to his own principles, Yuya is an embodiment of chaos and destruction. Eventually, young club hostess and shoplifter Nana (Nana Komatsu) gets kidnapped by the duo, a scenario that culminates in something more shocking and even transcendent.
Destruction Babies could be described as a cross between Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tokyo Fist (1995) and Takashi Miike’s polarizing Izo (2004). Both are exhaustively ultra-violent, comment on Japanese society, and involve characters that are almost impenetrable to understand or empathize with. But unlike those films, Destruction Babies is a lot more restrained in its execution. And because of this, there is a gradual build-up in the proceedings that pays off in the climax, not just in terms of tension and suspense but in character portrayals that might make you re-evaluate what you just saw.
Mariko’s direction also exudes a surrealistic feel, as when you witness the fights, you almost can’t believe that it is happening, yet cannot look away. Funnily enough, the feeling goes away when the audience is hit with harsh reality when some of the events make Taira an online phenomenon and there are some inventive moments involving found footage.
The actors certainly hold up their end of the bargain. With a fantastic presence as well as a committed physical stamina, Yagira has come a very long way since his first role in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows (2004). He handles the fight scenes with ease and even glee, but his performance never goes over-the-top. His presence is so striking that there’s a scene in the film where he wears a pair of sunglasses, and he looks eerily similar to veteran yakuza actor Jo Shishido, who starred in such cult favourites as Seijun Suzuki’s psychedelic noir Branded to Kill (1967).
Meanwhile, Suda plays a despicable figure here as Yuya has absolutely no regard to human decency (or anything human, really, not to mention an untapped anger that is unleashed when he encounters Taira. At this point, Suda becomes unhinged and his performance is shocking to watch, particularly during a scene set in a train station. And last but not least, there’s Komatsu. After making such an impression in Tetsuya Nakashima’s kaleidoscopic thriller The World of Kanako (2014), her role at first seems like a wasted opportunity, as she is simply required to play a hostess as well as a hostage. But thankfully, her role becomes clearer and even surprising when the film reaches the final act. Komatsu here is reminiscent of Kaori Fujii in Tokyo Fist, who also inhabited a character that is seemingly is a victim but turns out to be something else.
The supporting cast are all fine but none stand out, with the possible exception of Nijiro Murakami as Shota, Taira’s brother. Although he is much more passive and does not admit to it, he is actually a lot like his brother and Murakami excels in his performance. It is also great that he eerily looks a lot like Yagira, so they could actually pass as brothers.
With such extreme violence (which can border on repetition) and reprehensible characters, does the film have a point? It does, but it is delivered in the transcendent ending with restraint that it might fly over the heads of the audience, particularly those who are expecting a gut-punch conclusion. But the ending can be seen as quite satisfying, especially when you factor the coming-of-age shrine festival that serves as the backdrop of the film. Also, there are very few revelations for the character’s actions and backstories, which will definitely disappoint some.
Overall, though, Destruction Babies is a brutal, exhausting and challenging piece of work with fantastic performances, some sharp comments about Japanese society and some moments that are guaranteed to shock.
Destruction Babies is showing as part of Japanese Film Festival Australia which runs from October 14 to December 4. See the festival website for screening times and venues.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-Momatic Reviews.