Nobody wears their cultural baggage on their sleeve quite like Japan. This button-down, pop culture obsessed nation of workaholics practically wrote the book on emotional repression and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about bottling up your emotions, it’s that they always tend to find a way out, often in awkward and embarrassing ways. The longer you keep those feelings locked up in that deep, dark dungeon of your unconscious mind, the more time they have to bounce around and amplify until they either leak out in freaky little ways that make the people near you nervous, or you explode in a sudden and entirely inappropriate expression of your true desires. Often times these expressions make their way to Youtube and you never live it down.
By the same token, this kind of ferocious cultural self-control tends to breed a healthy counter-culture. The more locked down the mainstream of society is, the more out of step the rebels become. This is why Japan produces some of the most vital art in the world. There is a tremendous amount of insufferable j-pop over there, but there’s also a healthy ratio of quality punk and metal that lives in the underground. There are pockets of bizarro, freak out cinema like 964 Pinocchio and Tetsuo: The Iron Man. On the fringes of horror there is the Guinea Pig series. When people in Japan want to push against the grain in Japan you wind up with stuff like 2channel and the juvenile delinquent fantasy manga, Drop. Or you get its theatrical adaptation.
Hiroshi drops out of his upper-class private school to downgrade into a public school where he’ll be a delinquent, living a life of danger, fighting, drinking and smoking. Once there, he gets his ass kicked in by the local gang of delinquents who then take him in, inspired by his fighting spirit, in spite of his complete lack of ability to fight. On their way out of middle school and into high school, they’ll dig up a rivalry with another school’s delinquent gang, pick a fight with members of a local biker gang, befriend those gang bangers and Hiroshi will attempt to date Tatsuya’s dreamy ex. Lots of fights break out involving broken bottles and baseball bats.
Manga adaptations have a tendency to work out on screen an awful lot like American comic book adaptations. Most of the time it just doesn’t work. Common characteristics of manga, even in the straight-faced ordinary stuff, have a tendency to be extremely exaggerated. Wild facial expressions, massively overacting characters. The translation to screen typically tries to bring this quality with it and the results are insane and not always a good thing. Not so with Drop. Our hero, Hiroshi, is allegedly based on the school days of the series creator and the film’s director, Hiroshi Shingawa, is a wildly hilarious character whose fantasy to join the world’s troublemakers and buck the expectations of his social system is fueled by his reading of manga that celebrates the life and crimes of delinquent kids. What he finds is that it is everything he had hoped it would be even though it means being a part of this fast life means taking a beating often from people walking the same path as him.
Asian comedies often tend to fall into extremely cultural territory to the point, in fact, that most people not familiar with Japan or China are left scratching their heads. This trend continues with Drop but either I’m becoming better and reading the trends in Japan or Drop is just common enough that a foreigner like myself can understand some of the gags. There’s a shitload of manga in-jokes used throughout with Dragon Ball Z often stepping in as an analog when Hiroshi needs to explain heady concepts to his gang. There are also numerous references to Doraemon and Mobile Suit Gundam. It’s nearly the Japanese equivalent of watching Clerks or Mallrats with nerdy references and in-jokes left and right.
Our cast is a mostly funny bunch of goons with Hiroshi leading the way. Never really a fighter, mostly just a poser, he finds his way into violent confrontation after violent confrontation, often outmatched and outnumbered by his rivals and often paired with the gang’s leader, the absolutely nuts Tatsuya, who can’t seem to ever back down from a fight. The mayhem often plays out as though A Clockwork Orange crashed into a Loony Tunes short and the morbid dystopian parts drowned in the excessive foolishness…
…which makes the third act all the more tragic when the film, already bursting at the seams at two hours and feeling way too long, takes a nosedive into bummer city. For some reason, Drop, which up to this point had been madcap hilarity, shifts gears, entirely, and turns into a tragedy about a job site accident and a dead family member. On the bright side, Drop never seems to go there, that is to say, it never becomes the moral warning shot that you might expect it to become. At no point does it serve as a reminder that the life of a delinquent is an empty one and its reward is death or jail time. Thankfully it makes juvenile delinquency look like a lot of fun and serves as the social pressure-release valve that it needs to be but this sudden twist in tone and plot near the end comes out of nowhere and for no reason. It could have ended with the valiant effort by Hiroshi and the crew’s rescue attempt when the Devil’s Soldiers biker gang has one of their boys at their hideout but it has to go into deeply uncharacteristic territory and pull the fun run right out from under you.
I don’t get it, Drop! You guys had me. What with all the foolishness and violence. People getting hit with bats repeatedly, the endless beef between Hiroshi’s crew and members of the Devil’s Soldiers, it was glorious! I was even ready to forgive the often meandering plot which is mostly a collection of subplots, some going places, others going nowhere but this sudden shedding of the ha-ha in the end was uncharacteristic of the entire film and unnecessary. We had a good thing, you and me, right up to that point when you decided that it was time to stop laughing. I kept waiting for it to come back but it didn’t. Oh well. I guess we’ll always have the first 90 funny minutes to remember even though a lot of your jokes went over my head.