“You don’t deserve to change my life” the hero of Tsutomu Hanabusa’s adaptation of Ken Wakui’s manga Tokyo Revengers (東京リベンジャーズ) eventually affirms in finally facing his fears while trying to change destiny not least his own. In contrast to its original meaning in English, the wasei eigo “Revenge” usually means not payback but “rematch” or at least a second chance to prove oneself or make up for a past mistake. Through his time travel shenanigans, this is perhaps what young Takemichi (Takumi Kitamura) is attempting to do in revisiting the events which he feels ruined his life and left him a useless coward too cowed to offer much resistance to his continual degradation.
Now 27, Takemichi lives in a rundown, untidy apartment and works part-time in a bookstore where his boss inappropriately mocks for him for still being a virgin, the kind of guy who peaked in high school and can’t move on from adolescent bravado. He might have a point in a sense in that Takemichi is indeed arrested but hearing on the news one day that his first love Hinata (Mio Imada) has been killed in a car accident supposedly caused by the Tokyo Manji gang alongside her brother Naoto (Yosuke Sugino), he finds himself thinking back to his school days. It’s at this point that someone shoves him off a train platform and, facing certain death, he suddenly finds himself in the body of his 17-year-old, bleach blond delinquent self. Takemichi assumes it’s a near death flashback, but later wakes up back in the present and realises that his actions in the past have consequences in the future.
Quite clearly taking its cues from classic high school delinquent manga in which moody high school boys vie for the top spot through relentless violence, Tokyo Revengers nevertheless undercuts the genre’s macho posturing in firstly having Takemichi broken by his first defeat and then allowing him to reclaim his space as a hero through his determination to care for and protect others even if his final victory is in facing the man he held responsible for shattering his sense of self. Sent back into the past to prevent the Tokyo Manji Gang from ever forming, Takemichi refuses the obvious early solution but remains conflicted in realising that at its inception “Toman” saw itself as a compassionate force for good, a far cry from the nihilistic violence it now brings to the city. Rather than more violence, he finds a solution in its reverse, safeguarding relationships and preventing heartbreak in order to ensure no one else’s soul is corrupted by grief or loneliness.
Takemichi feels himself powerless but is valued by his friends for his determination to protect others no matter the cost to himself, as he unwittingly proves through his time travel adventures attempting to save himself as much as Hinata by restoring his sense of self apparently shattered by his subjugation at the hands of a rival gang back back in high school. At 27 he’s a meek and broken man, forever apologising for his existence and living an unfulfilling life always running away from challenge or difficulty. Given an improbable second chance, he begins to find the courage to do it all differently with the benefit of hindsight and the stability of age, finally facing his teenage trauma as a fully adult man.
Like any good delinquent movie, Hanabusa makes space for more than a few mass brawls along with intensely personal one-on-one battles drawing a direct line between high school violence and street war thuggery. “Thugs aren’t cool anymore” Toman leader Mikey (Ryo Yoshizawa) had explained, his compassionate second in command Kenchin (Yuki Yamada) reminding him to “have a heart” in keeping gang violence within the confines of their society and refraining from injuring innocent people. Toman aren’t yakuza, but they are perhaps the inheritors of jingi, or at least would be if left untouched by trauma and betrayal. In beating his own trauma, Takemichi undoes his destiny saving his friends and himself by learning to embrace his inner strength and refusing to back down in the face of intimidation. Part high school delinquent manga, part time travel adventure, Hanabusa’s sci-fi-inflected drama swaps macho posturing for a more contemplative take on the weight of past mistakes while giving its hero a second chance to be the kind of man he always thought himself to be.
Tokyo Revengers screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)