'Amiko': Film Review | Filmart 2018

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A scream from the young.

Twenty-year-old Japanese helmer Yoko Yamanaka's debut explores a high school student's attempt to find meaning in and beyond her small-town surroundings.

"Where is happiness when we're going to die despite everything?" wonders Amiko's titular protagonist. Revolving around an acerbic teenage girl who struggles against the banalities of her provincial hometown, Yoko Yamanaka's directing debut could be seen as the Japanese version of Lady Bird. But in a simpler, spunkier and markedly lo-fi way: Yamanaka is just 20, after all, and the film’s budget a meager $2,500 (a fifth of which went to repair the car she crashed while driving to the set).

The latest enfant terrible to emerge from Japan's Pia Film Festival — an event that has hosted the indie debuts of now-verified icons such as Yoshimitsu Morita, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Sion Sono — Yamanaka has gone on to become the youngest director to showcase a film in the Berlin Forum. This perhaps vindicates her decision to make a movie instead of attending film school or completing her undergraduate studies.

She clearly has a rebellious streak, which drives Amiko's sharp, succinct portrait of a confused adolescent's growing pains and suburban angst. The film is perfect for festivals looking for the next rebel yell and its inclusion in the Hong Kong International Film Festival's lineup could provide just the right venue. Featuring a sympathetic performance from its youthful female lead, Aira Sunohara, it plays well as a comical rite of passage and won the audience award when it bowed at Pia.

Set in the Japanese city of Nagano, Amiko unfolds mostly in a school that its protag describes, in voiceover, as a pig farm, courthouse and corporation. However, all this evil seems to exist only in her jaded mind, invented as an alternative to her mundane, middlebrow existence.

The jolt she’s waiting for finally arrives in the shape of a boy, Aomi (Hiroro Oshita). Over a short stroll after school at dusk, Amiko finds in him a kindred spirit with a shared hatred of sports, a love of Radiohead (specifically the album King of Limbs) and the same general frustration over living a nondescript life in a nondescript town. "It's easier to live just being told what to do," Aomi says — and Amiko melts, smitten by his nihilism.

With the meet-cute over, Amiko's wait begins — literally, as Aomi suddenly drops off her radar. She squeals as she discusses her feelings with her best friend, Kanako (Maiko Mineo), and tries to learn French as a way of killing time. Increasingly baffled by the boy’s sudden disappearance, her fantasies come crashing down as she learns that he ran away to Tokyo to live with a glitzy ex-student who represents everything he said he loathed.

Amiko's trek to Tokyo yields as many answers about Aomi's values — or the absence of them — as it does about her own perspectives on life. Understandably, her worldview is disjointed, confused and self-contradictory, but she defends it vigorously. Bolstered by Sunohara's performance as well as by Yamanaka's camerawork and editing, complete with idiosyncratic flourishes like sudden zooms and grainy flashbacks, Amiko is a condensed ball of manic energy from start to finish.

Cast: Aira Sunohara, Hiroro Oshita, Maiko Mineo, Ayu Hasegawa
Director-screenwriter-editor-production designer: Yoko Yamanaka
Directors of photography: Asuka Kato, Yoko Yamanaka
Music: Shotaro Ohori
Sales: Pia Film Festival
In Japanese
66 minutes