It’s probably unnecessary to note that Japanese (pop) culture, and more specifically its cinema today, has a sort of very vivid coolness and charm that often easily distinguishes it for international viewers. The escalating domestic box-office success of live-action manga adaptations is no exception, even if internationally, this burgeoning “genre” may still be more of a cult attraction with a diehard but niche target audience. This brief exordium offers context for Tsutomu Hanabusa’s Tokyo Revengers, which is adapted from a famous, ongoing Weekly Shōnen manga of the same name — created, written, and illustrated by the mangaka, Ken Wakui. The film follows the story of 20-ish protagonist Takemichi Hanagaki (Takumi Kitamura) who, after being pushed onto subway tracks in front of a rushing train, is suddenly and magically thrown ten years back into the past where he tries, in a familiar Orphean manner, to save the life of his high-school sweetheart Hinata (Mio Imada) who, alongside her younger brother, Naoto (Yôsuke Sugino), was a victim of violence involving the Tokyo Manji gang. This mission, then, to change the past by altering the gang’s course, offers the thematic crux of Tokyo Revengers: specifically, the necessity of love’s survival in a time of overgrown hatred and violence.
As in its original comic form, Hanabusa’s Tokyo Revengers plays out as a mélange of bloody gang battles, high-school romance, and a time-travel genre play. The mix should work, but the problem is that the film’s limited runtime never provides adequate space for all of these modes and ideas to fully develop. In its format as a feature film, Tokyo Revengers can at best wink at its source material, perhaps relying too much on the assumption that its target audience is already familiar with most of the characters and situations here, and can thus fill in the gaps; this, even through a glimpse at the anime series version of Tokyo Revengers produced by Linden Films and which was aired earlier this year on Japanese television, also speaks to the lackluster effect of Hanabusa’s effort. In fact, this direct comparison elucidates how devoid Tokyo Revengers is of the brio and dash that make its manga and anime variants so enthralling in the first place. The vivacity of a sharp color palette would have been a significant boon here, rather than excessive appliance of grimy tints and heavy use of artificial green and blue filters (especially during nighttime scenes) that the director relies on; the half-hearted atmosphere could have opened up into a wild, joyous experience — think the ravishing, singular formalism that Sion Sono has employed for his manga-based films like Tokyo Tribe or two-parter Shinjuku Swan.
Apart from some specific action sequences (mostly gory fistfight sequences), which seem to be the Hanabusa’s primary focus — competent without ever overtly impressing; well-choreographed and effectively pacing — everything else here, including the romance between Takemichi and Hinata, never really function at the same energy level and remain underwhelming. But if there’s any redeeming factor that keeps Tokyo Revengers somewhat engaging until the end, it’s the film’s aesthetic of flamboyant, punky appearance, and the excellent performances Hanabusa coaxes out of the massive acting ensemble. This strength is especially pronounced when it comes to the two main Manji gang members, leader Mikey and right-hand man Draken, who bring a little force and hip rhythm to the proceedings thanks to Manjirō Sano and Yûki Yamada’s respective work. But despite this appealing sheeling and occasional injection of spirit, there’s just not enough to give these under-developed characters (unforgivable for the Moebius gang members) any depth or nuance, and ultimately renders everyone here mere cosplayers. Still, Tokyo Revengers has already become one of the highest-grossing box-office hits of 2021 in Japan, which means plenty are able to overlook Hanabusa’s omission of narrative color and his decision to remain pro forma with his film adaptation rather than aiming for anything more ambitious. A more cynical take, however, sees in that only proof that Tokyo Revengers can win over predisposed manga diehards by the virtue of simply transforming cartoon characters and worlds into something more “real.” For those whose praise isn’t a foregone conclusion, it will likely prove disappointing, unimaginative, and only partly-conceived affair.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2021 — Dispatch 6.