Everybody grows up. Some folks are forced to do so, kicking and screaming. Drop makes this point as literal as possible by showing delinquency as a rite of passage. Instead of relying on meaningful glances and heartfelt montages to indicate the dawn of maturity, director Hiroshi Shinagawa uses lead pipes and baseball bats in this adaptation of his own manga. The resulting film is both unusual and quite effective.
We join the film as Hiroshi (Hiroki Narimiya) has made an important life decision. Tired of being clean-cut and sensitive, he has chosen to drop out of private school and enlist in a public school with the goal of becoming a juvenile delinquent. He can't fight worth a damn but he's got attitude to spare. Unfortunately his attitude doesn't come in handy when he is promptly beaten to a pulp on his very first day at the new school. Handing out the beating is Tatsuya (Hiro Mizushima) and his gang of cronies. There's Lupin the thief, Moriki the brain and Wankou the biter (you read it right the first time). Impressed by his ability to take a licking, the gang invites Hiroshi into their ranks and he gladly accepts.
What follows is a series of street brawls as the hot-headed Tatsuya picks fights with gangs from neighboring schools and constantly drags Hiroshi into the fray. After the initial shock from the ferocity of the fights wears off, it is amusing to watch as Hiroshi and the guys form alliances with other fighters who are supposed to be their sworn enemies. Slowly the gang swells in size until there aren't any usual suspects left to fight. Just as Hiroshi's days start to level out, graduation is upon him and he has to enter the big bad world of high school. As he is faced with the choice of cleaning up his act or furthering his rough and tumble lifestyle, reality encroaches with sobering effect.
For all the blood that is spilled along the way, Drop has an undeniable sweetness at its core. I'm not talking about the sappy, cloying kind that gags you with cuteness. It's the sort that sneaks up on you when you're not looking and patiently waits for you to notice it. This has a lot to do with the choice of Hiroshi as the film's central character. If this were Tatsuya's story, the focus would be on the apathy of an angry teenager making this an entirely different film. Hiroshi has a goofy earnestness that takes the edge of his gradual evolution into a bona fide hooligan. He is so obsessed with being bad and looking cool in the process that all of his posing just betrays his innocence. This especially comes through in his scenes of shy flirtation with Tatsuya's girlfriend, Miyuki (Yuika Motokariya).
Director Shinagawa, who also handled the screenplay, injects the film with an off-kilter but delightful sense of humor. Alternating between the sophomoric and the clever, the laughs always feel organic. Shinagawa gives us characters with quirks and real personalities without resorting to shoving cheap punchlines into their mouths. He also does a splendid job of demonstrating how the heightened reality of a teenager can be very close to utter fantasy. No matter how much the boys fight, they never get seriously hurt. Instead, real pain comes from the cruel unpredictability of life and everything it throws at the guys. The climax exploits real tragedy in order to show how adulthood is not a choice. Hiroshi must mature even though the follies of his youth still whisper in his ear.
Hiroki Narimiya's performance as Hiroshi goes a long way toward enforcing Shinagawa's vision. There is a raw energy in his portrayal that undercuts the practiced coolness of the character. Hiro Mizushima also works wonders with the underwritten character of Tatsuya. He layers misdirected rage over a visible foundation of sadness so that each sentiment informs the other. He may not be the emotional core of the film but he is the perfect foil for Hiroshi. If the film has any flaws, they are related to the uneven pacing and prolonged melodrama of the final act. The reality of Hiroshi's situation sets in for the viewer long before he arrives at his own conclusions. I guess that's sort of the point. The boy just needed time to grow.