Himizu: Venice Film Review

The daring gamble to set a teenage manga tale in disaster-struck northern Japan pays off in the end.

Director Sono Sion's adaptation of a 2001 manga has a topical message about Japan's national pain and rebuilding.

Director Sono Sion had already written his adaptation of the 2001 manga comic Himizu, a shrill teenage wail of existential discomfort, when on March 11 an earthquake and tsunami devastated northern Japan. His intuition to rewrite it in light of those tragic events brings poignant meaning to a nearly unwatchable adaptation of a genre comic targeted at Japanese teens. This bizarre overlay of styles and moods is a daring gamble that somehow heightens understanding of Japan’s disaster, as though the only possible aesthetic approach was via cinema of the absurd.

Fraught with brutal violence and needless repetition that draws out its two-hour running time, Himizu is still not an easy film to like, but the topicality of its message about national pain and rebuilding could attract some offshore sales following its Venice and Toronto debuts.

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While young local audiences will appreciate the film’s manga roots much more than the uninitiated, no one can help but feel touched when the camera pans over a flattened city in which a lone man walks around in a daze. The film was shot on location in the quake zone and, though disaster visuals are used sparingly, the sound of deadly rumbling is a recurrent reminder of where and when the action is taking place.

All the main characters have been deeply affected by the disaster, and the question now is what future awaits them. Sumida (Shota Sometani) lives in a humble boathouse on the side of a placid lake with his often absent mother. He lets refugees who have pitched flimsy tents nearby to use their bathtub when mom is out, like crazy old Yoruno who not long ago was the president of a company. Meanwhile he fights off the unwanted attentions of a crazy rich girl in his class, Chazawa (Fumi Nikaidou). His greatest desire, he tells her, is to lead an ordinary life. Both 14-year-olds rebel against the stupid banalities taught in school, and look for an authentic way to live.

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They have no models. The leaking nuclear plants in Fukushima are on the news. The country is in the dazed grip of catastrophe and their parents hate them. In manga language, this translates into high-shock scenes of the delicate looking Sumida being brutally beaten up by his vicious father, who comes home to look for money and openly wishes his son were dead. Chazawa fares no better: she discovers that her parents are building a hangman’s block in the living room where they hope she’ll commit suicide.

If the calm, silent Sumida takes his mother’s total indifference and his father’s violent abuse as a matter of course, Chazawa’s grating non-stop chatter and adulation get on his nerves. There is no charm in their pre-sexual relationship of pushing and shoving and hitting each other like little kids, a scene that the director repeats until it becomes truly tiresome to watch.

Real violence enters Sumida’s life when his drunken father goes too far in taunting him. Shocked by the crime he has committed, and the fact he’ll never be able to lead the “ordinary” life he planned on, Sumida paints his face and stalks the city streets with a kitchen knife, crazily determined to make amends to society by killing wrong-doers.  The film’s focus shifts back and forth from his puerile hero fantasies to a much deeper level at which all of Japanese society is sick and mad. Incredibly, what both psychologically shattered teenagers want most is for Sumida to become a “respectable man,” on which the entire future of Japan is hanging.  

Young leads Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaidou – both experienced film actors – grow in stature as the film progresses to the achingly real final scene, where they are extraordinarily intense and effective. Sono Sion gets the ending superbly right, transforming the dark finale of Minoru Furuya’s original comic into a wild rush into the future.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 6, 2011.
Production companies: Gaga, Kodansha
Cast: Shota Sometani, Fumi Nikaidou, Tetsu Watanabe, Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Megumi Kagurazaka, Ken Mitsuishi, Denden, Yosuke Kubozuka
Director: Sono Sion
Screenwriter: Sono Sion, based on the comic book by Minoru Furuya
Executive producers: Tom Yoda, Satomi Odake
Producers: Haruo Umekawa, Masashi Yamazaki
Coproducer: Mizue Kunizane
Director of photography: Sohei Tanikawa
Production designer: Takashi Matsuzuka
Music: Tomohide Harada
Editor: Junicho Ito
Sales Agent: Gaga
129 minutes