EXPECTATIONS: Something extremely violent and with an actual meaning.
REVIEW: After the genre-bending and genuinely surprising romantic thriller Hime-anole, I did not think that there will be a film that can shock me with its execution and portrayal of violence on screen. That is until I watched a small-scale film with a blunt-force title, Destruction Babies. I am not familiar with the work of Tetsuya Mariko but if his earlier work is as hard-hitting and impacting as Destruction Babies is, you can bet I’ll be looking forward to 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 beat 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 leave an impression to everyone who watches. Taira is always left down-and-out and into a bloody pulp but he always comes back from rock bottom and, if anything, becomes even stronger and more resilient as the night goes on.
Things take a strange turn when a 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 a young club hostess and shoplifter, Nana (Nana Komatsu), gets kidnapped by the duo which then culminates into something even shocking and even transcendent.
The way I describe this film is that it is a cross between Takashi Miike’s polarizing Izo and Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tokyo Fist. Both films are exhaustively ultra-violent, involve commentary on Japanese society and they both involve characters that are almost impenetrable to understand or empathize. But unlike those films, Destruction Babies is a lot more controlled and restrained in its execution. And it is because of that, 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 its character portrayals that might make you reevaluate what you just saw.
Mariko’s direction also hews towards a bit of a surrealistic feel, as if when you witness the fights, you almost can’t believe that it is happening, yet you 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, with 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, Yuya Yagira has come a very long way since his first role in Hirokazu Koreeda’s film, Nobody Knows. He handles the fight scenes with ease and glee but his performance is always controlled and never 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 actor Jo Shishido, who starred in films like Seijun Suzuki’s psychedelic film noir Branded to Kill.
Masaki Suda, who’s been in probably over 1000 films over the past 2 years, plays such a despicable figure here as Yuya. With absolutely no regard to human decency (or anything human really) as well as having an untapped anger that is unleashed when he encounters Taira, Suda becomes unhinged with his performance and it becomes shocking to watch, particularly during a scene set in a train station.
And last but not least, there’s Nana Komatsu. After making such a big impression in Tetsuya Nakashima’s kaleidoscopic thriller, The World of Kanako, her role at first seems like a wasted opportunity, playing a hostess as well as a hostage between the two male leads. But thankfully, her role becomes clear and even surprising when the film reaches the final act and Komatsu plays it out really well. Her role is reminiscent of Kaori Fujii’s role in Tokyo Fist, which is also a role that seemingly is a victim but turns out to be very different.
The supporting cast are all fine with their roles, but none of them stand out as truly as the three leads, 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 a lot like his brother and Murakami excels in his performance. It is also great that he eerily looks a lot like Yagira, that they could actually pass as brothers.
With such violence (which can border on repetition) and reprehensible characters, does the film have a point for all of its events? It does, but it is delivered in the transcendent ending with restraint that it might fly over the heads of the audience; particularly for those who are expecting a gut-punch conclusion. But the ending can be seen as quite satisfying, especially when you factor the backdrop of the film, which is a coming-of-age shrine festival and the characters together. Also, there are also very few revelations for the character’s actions and backstories, which will definitely disappoint some.
But overall, Destruction Babies is a brutal, exhausting and challenging piece of work with fantastic performances, some sharp moments about Japanese society as well as some moments that are guaranteed to shock. And to think that this is director Tetsuya Mariko’s most commercial effort, it makes me want to check out his prior work.
Surprisingly controlled direction from Tetsuya Mariko
Many moments of shocking brutality
Very few revelations about the characters
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