Backwater (Tomogui): Locarno Review

Backwater - H - 2013
Small town saga is simultaneously underpowered and overwrought.

Masaki Suda stars in Shinji Aoyama's Japanese drama, premiering in competition at the Swiss festival.

Murky currents run disappointingly shallow in Shinji Aoyama's Backwater (Tomogui), a gumbo of rough sex, forbidden passion and murderously dysfunctional family relationships that's much more torpid than torrid. Domestic box-office will be boosted not so much by Aoyama's fading reputation than by the prominence of the prize-winning 2011 novella upon which the screenplay is based, plus the appeal of youthful lead Masaki Suda.

Overseas, Aoyama's return to darker material following 2011's anodyne Tokyo Park may be hailed in some quarters as a partial recovery of form. Indeed, the Locarno world premiere yielded two awards: Best Director from the Swiss critics' federation, and Best Film from the Junior Jury's (runner-up: U.S. indie favorite Short Term 12). But it's hard to see this enthusiasm being replicated much even around the festival circuit, and the days when, thanks to the likes of Cannes Jury Prize winner Eureka (2000), Aoyama was ranked as an influential auteur now seem long gone.

There was surely a more intriguing film to be wrought from Backwater's source material, a novella by Shinya Tanaka which in 2011 won Japan's most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa Prize. The hermit-like Tanaka's acceptance speech, in which the 'hikikomori' recluse somewhat braggingly quoted Shirley MacLaine and took a pot-shot at one of the competition's former judges, caused quite a media stir. This helped propel his book (whose title Tomogui refers to 'dog-eat-dog' cannibalism) to fourth place among fiction best-sellers over the subsequent 12 months.

Haruhiko Arai's screenplay cleaves quite close to Tanaka's text, exploring the drab setting of Kawabe, a humdrum town in Japan's central Gifu region sluggishly bisected by the heavily polluted Hida river. Here 17-year-old Toma (Suda) lives with his shady, brutish dad Madoka (Ken Mitsuishi) and demure stepmother Kotoko (Yukiko Shinohara), witnessing their stormy sex-lives at uncomfortably close proximity. Toma's mother Jinko (Yuko Tanaka) still resides nearby, making a living by cleaning and processing the fish and eels caught in the insalubrious Hida.

Madoka's bedroom roughness was a major factor in his divorce, and Toma is becoming increasingly concerned that he may have inherited this predilection. This casts a shadow over the horny lad's budding relationship with independent-minded schoolmate Chigusa (Misaki Kinoshita), though Aoyama and Arai cast a darker cloud over the whole narrative by informing us, via retrospective voice-over from a grown-up Toma, that 1988 was the year Madoka died.

While by no means a 'whodunnit' (more's the pity), Backwater does derive some suspense from stirring speculation about the means - and cause -- of Madoka's demise, the boorish drunk's cackling villainy so one-dimensional we await his dispatch with mounting impatience. And while the use of Toma's first-person narration could cast the movie as his distorted, exaggerated recollections of a severely traumatic transitional event in his sentimental education, in practice there's little sense of such ambiguity here, nor any particular psychological depth.

It doesn't help that Suda, well known to Japanese audiences for the fantastical Kamen Rider W television series and film, is seldom much more than a pretty face as the conflicted but unreflective Toma. He's consistently outshone by the more nuanced contributions from (Yuko) Tanaka as his stoically post-menopausal mother ("... now I'm not a woman," she casually remarks) and by Kinoshita as his long-suffering quasi-girlfriend.

And while the story itself is a melodramatic and ultimately histrionic catalogue of long-burning enmities and not-so-startling revelations, there are certain incidental compensations in Takahiro Imai's widescreen cinematography, which achieves some grubbily poetic effects in its survey of the eponymous, trash-choked stream. Nobuyoki Kikuchi's sound-design meanwhile works some chittering wonders with summery insect-sounds, raising them to oppressive levels when the characters' emotional temperature simmers up towards the boil.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (International Competition)
Production company: Stylejam
Cast: Masaki Suda, Misaki Kinoshita, Yuko Tanaka, Ken Mitsuishi, Yukiko Shinohara
Director: Shinji Aoyama
Screenwriter: Haruhiko Arai, based on the novella by Shinya Tanaka
Producer: Naoki Kai
Associate producers: Kumi Sato
Director of photography: Takahiro Imai
Production designer: Takeshi Shimizu
Costume designer: Nami Shinozuka
Editor: Genta Tamaki
Music: Isao Yamada, Shinji Aoyama
Sales: Rezo, Paris
No MPAA rating, 102 minutes