While Tetsuya Mariko’s Yellow Kid (2009) marked his first appearance on the international stage, it is, undoubtedly, his commercial debut Destruction Babies that cemented his position as one of the Japanese directorial talents to watch.
While he won the Prize for the Best Emerging Director at the Locarno International Film Festival, he also earned praise within Japan, by being ranked fourth at the 90th edition of the Kinema Junpo awards and winning awards for Best Actor (Yuya Yagira) and two awards for Rookie of the Year (Nana Komatsu, Nijiro Murakami).
Shota Ashihara (Nijiro Murakami) and his older brother Taira (Yuya Yagira), a troublemaker, live by themselves in Mitsuhama, a sea-port town near Matsuyama (Ehime prefecture). One day, after Taira is attacked by the local Takahama gang, he disappears.
On a trip to Matsuyama, Shota accidently discovers a clue about his brother’s whereabouts when he sees a guy, Yuya Kitahara (Masaki Suda), wearing his brother’s working jacket. He leaves his friends and starts wandering through Matsuyama in order to find his brother, not yet knowing his brother has pursued his destructive path of violence. Seduced by Taira’s thirst for violence, Yuya Kitahara forces himself to become Taira’s partner in crime. On their path of violent enjoyment, they eventually steal a car and kidnap its sole passenger, the hostess Nana (Nana Komatsu).
While it is obvious that Destruction Babies concerns youth violence, a mere superficial (and offended) look at the depiction of violence easily hides the true scandal and true complexity of the narrative. Taira might, in the eyes of the various victims, disrupt the societal space as a real and traumatizing instance, there is an imaginary logic driving his violent destructive enjoyment. The imaginary logic behind his enjoyment is most explicit evoked by his first violent encounter, the encounter with the man with the guitar. While Taira enjoys violence as such, he also aims, in his enjoyment, at what is supposedly the other’s enjoyment – in this case his guitar.
But one should not fail to sense the ‘sadomasochistic’ side of his violence as well. As much as he enjoys dealing violence, he also enjoys receiving violence. In other words, he also enjoys being reduced to the position of ‘shit’, the position, as object-as-enjoyed, from which he enjoys. This sadomasochistic tendency is also sensible in the various other violent instances created by Taira’s active search for destructive enjoyment.
Destruction Babies further emphasizes the imaginary dimension at the moment it is revealed that Taira, after being defeated, aims, in an act of revenge, to deal the same injury to his object-to-enjoy – a broken nose for a broken nose. On a more fundamental level, this revelation shows that there is, within the violent encounters, a mere dynamic of two positions – violator/winner and victim/loser. The dependence on this imaginary dynamic is the sole reason why the narrative comes to frame the violence as a bleak never-ending spiral. There is, and this is the most depressing truth, no way out. At no point in the narrative, a symbolic third element comes to mediate the imaginary dynamic.
Even though Taira’s violence against the friends of Yuya is still grasped within the confines of the imaginary, this violence is of a different order. The lack of enjoyment as communicated by Taira’s facial expressions, subtly evokes that this violence serves to mend his ego – one could even contend that an injury of the ego is at the very base of Taira’s violent and destructive path.
The position of Yuya is radically different from Taira’s. It is only with him at his side that he’s able to transgress the symbolic law he is subjected to. But in envisioning his transgression as a game, a game he can enjoy until its game-over, he nevertheless puts the transgression explicitly within the law (Narra-note 1). Two other differences can be noted as well. First of all, Yuya’s enjoyment is directly linked with social media – the act of being seen and being spoken about. The second difference is his misogynistic fixation on hitting women – an enjoyment, obviously a venting of frustration, subtly explained by his fixation on his sexual mobile game (Narra-note 2).
While Destruction babies firstly focuses on Taira’s destructive violence as such, the introduction of Nana and Yuya, via Taira’s presence, makes the narrative that more engaging (Narra-note 3). Besides cinematographically breaking the framing of Taira’s cycle of excessive violence, this introduction of different narrative perspectives sensibly evokes the fact that Taira, even though his violence is grounded in the imaginary, affects society, the symbolic, and those subjects born within that society as traumatic instance. But even with the various perspectives into the mix, the plot may still feel empty to some. While this could be seen as a narrative problem, the evoked emptiness is necessary to sensibly emphasize the beyond-sense of the excess of violence.
Another aspect that is beautifully framed is the ‘apathy’ of the spectators. Hiding behind their smart-phones, the surrounding spectators are revealed as visually enjoying the excess of violence. They do not interfere with the violence by calling the police for instance (Narra-note 4). Once again, the narrative evokes the lack of third symbolic point to halt the imaginary dynamic between violator and victim (Narra-note 5). Destruction babies should thus be read as a social commentary on the lack of authoritative instance as coupled with the thriving of an excess of enjoyment.
The cinematography of Destruction Babies consists of a unsurprising mix of spatial moving shots, following shots and semi-fixed shots (cine-note 1). Nevertheless, Tetsuya Mariko infuse naturalism into the framing of the narrative and its spaces by subtly slipping camera movement into what otherwise would have been just temporally long fixed shots. The naturalism is of-course sensible in the framing of the violence as such. Tetsuya frames the violence with a limited amount of cuts and without using any kind of decorations to empower the impact of violence.
That this naturalist approach is still able to evoke the disturbing nature of Taira’s indulging in violence has everything to do with the sound-design (Music-note 1). Due to the minimalistic approach to sound, Tetsuya is able to give the spaces of the narrative an atmosphere of emptiness and desolateness. It is on this canvas of emptiness, emphasized by the soberness of the cinematography, that the spectator is presented with the ‘dull’ sounds of punching – and to a lesser degree Yuya’s cries of enjoyment/frustration. It is by this contrast, as created by the sound of the punch, that the desolate, senseless and downright depressive path of violence is able to be reverberated. What further empowers the effect of the contrast and the evocation of the senseless path of violence, is the acting performances as such. The performances of Yuya Yagira (His Lost Name (2018)), Masaki Suda (The Light Shines Only There (2014) and Nana Komatsu (World Of Kanako (2014), Drowning Love (2016)) truly breath life into the depressive and confronting descend into enjoyment.
Due to the sober cinematographical presentation of the excess of violence, the nihilistic Destruction Babies may not be for everyone. But for those who are able to accept the emptines that marks the narrative and its spaces, a wonderful but slightly disturbing confrontation with violent enjoyment and the failure of the symbolic mediation awaits. Yes, Destruction Babies is provocative, but not only due to its framing of violence. The true provocation lies in its rather hidden critique of a society struggling with enjoyment and authority.
Cine-note 1: While fixed shots are used as well, their use is limited to establishing new narratives spaces. Spatial moving shots, for that matter, often have the same establishing function.
Narra-note 1: Due to Yuya’s evocation of the ‘knock-out game’, one has to assume that Yuya, as subject, is more aware of the symbolic law than Taira. Taira, for that matter, seems to have abandoned the symbolic.
Narra-note 2: As Yuya’s reality – the sensible presence of the Other of the law – dawns on him, his enjoyment quickly changes colour and turns into frustration.
Narra-note 3: While Nana is a hostess, she also enjoys shoplifting. Note that she never shoplifts goods that are essential to her survival, but goods to enjoy.
Narra-note 4: The various people trying to stop the violence do not function as a third point, but enter the dynamic of the two imaginary positions as violator, only to become victim in the end.
Narra-note 5: While Yuya is the first character in the narrative that refers to an external point, i.e. the police, in order to safe Taira from a knife attack, this vocalization doesn’t redefine the imaginary dynamic as such. Nevertheless, one can sense the effect the making present of the third point has on Taira’s opponents.
Music-note 1: There are some instances where a distorted, punk-like music accompanies the framing.