Punks, in their various post-Elvis incarnations, have been a feature of Japanese society — and films — for almost half a century. More recent, though, is the vogue for what might be called punks-brawl-for-fun films, which celebrate the joy and glory of smashing heads together with your four or 40 best pals.
One progenitor was “Be Bop High School,” a long-running manga by Kazuhiro Kiuchi that focused on punks at a bottom-of-the-barrel private high school and their cool, if comic, dustups. The manga spawned everything from feature films to pachinko games.
The hero of “Drop,” an autobiographical first feature by comedian Hiroshi Shinagawa, is a fan of manga much like “Be Bop High School” (the film is based on a best-selling manga that Shinagawa writes and artist Dai Suzuki draws). Though his weapon of choice is his mouth, not his fists, Hiroshi (Hiroki Narimiya) transfers from his peace-loving private junior high to a gang-ridden public school so he can get in on the action.
He is soon spotted as a new kid by Tatsuya (Hiro Mizushima), who beats the living daylights out of him. This is not a punishment, but a test. When Hiroshi struggles to his feet, his face a bloody mask, ready for more, Tatsuya decides he has passed and admits him into his gang, whose members include the dryly cool Moriki (Kazuki Namioka), puppy doggish Wanko (Tetsu Wakazuki) and thievish Lupin (Yuji Ayabe). There is also the porky Sakamoto (Terumi Ishikawa), who goes to a different school, but rumbles and parties with the core quintet.
Among their most formidable rivals are Akagi (Shuichiro Masuda) and Kato (Masaki Sumitani, aka comedian Razor Ramon), two hulking punks who are no longer kids, but rather in the prime of criminal manhood.
Adults seldom make an appearance, with the exceptions of Tatsuya’s ex-yakuza father (Kenichi Endo), who still swings a metal bat with the best of them, and Hiroshi’s sympathetic, if fretful, older sister (Noriko Nakagoshi) and her friendly construction-worker fiance (Yusuke Kamiji), a former punk himself.
Hiroshi slowly improves as a fighter, while deepening his friendships with his pals, whose motto might be “as we bleed, we bond.” And he becomes more than pals with Miyuki (Yuika Motokariya), Tatsuya’s sweet, neglected girlfriend.
Shinagawa manga-tizes this material — even using inserts from the source comic as punctuation in the action — but he also humanizes it, giving us glimpses of the real kids behind the glowering masks, including the occasional tear.
He has cast his film well, with actors who not only look uncannily like his manga characters, but extend them beyond two dimensions. Though too smooth and charming by half as Hiroshi in his initial manga-nerd incarnation, Narimiya convinces as a fighter, not just a fast talker. The film’s real find, though, is Mizushima, playing the gang’s one true hardcase, who doesn’t get his kicks bullying the weak, but has no pity for them.
The film comes most vividly to life in its fight scenes: These guys pound on each other in ways both realistically devastating and comically absurd, having the time of their misspent youths.
It’s a fantasy, this vision of punkdom, whose battles royale result in no permanent brain damage. It’s also a tonic in these depressed times. Shinagawa’s heroes live without apologies or fear, with friends who have their backs. Not that it’s going to keep them off the unemployment line.