'The Hungry Lion' ('Ueta Lion'): Film Review | Hawaii 2018

Geta Films
Grim going.

Takaomi Ogata’s fourth feature examines the impact of muckraking news coverage and predatory social media commentary on a teenager.

The insatiable appetite for scandal exhibited by sensationalist news outlets and troll-infested social media networks frames The Hungry Lion, a realistic drama charting the public defamation of a defenseless high school student. Often bleak and occasionally anxiety-inducing, Takaomi Ogata’s feature seems destined for a brief tour of the international film festival circuit before perhaps securing a slot with some intrepid streaming platform.

Popular Tokyo high school junior Hitomi (Urara Matsubayashi) has a close circle of friends, a doting boyfriend and a comfortable home life, despite her single mother’s (Mariko Tsutsui) hectic schedule and frequent absence from home. So when one of her teachers gets arrested for sex with a minor and a mobile phone video begins circulating of him with a girl resembling Hitomi, she dismisses the sordid rumor that she’s been having an affair with him. Confident of her reputation, she goes on happily dating Hiroki (Atomu Mizuishi) and socializing with her friends.

As gossip about Hitomi spreads across social media, she begins to receive harassing messages on her mobile and her sister Asuka (Miku Uehara) complains of being persecuted at school over the alleged incident. Things take a somber turn after the school authorities put Hitomi on an abrupt leave of absence and her mother demands an explanation, but the girl assures her that she’s not at all involved with the teacher. When Hiroki withdraws and stops returning her calls, Hitomi realizes that the situation has gotten beyond her control, but by then it’s too late for any sort of remediation, as public condemnation of her behavior intensifies, forcing her to take drastic action.

Ogata takes an almost anthropological interest in the online dissemination of gossip about Hitomi’s supposed affair and how the incessant replaying of the incriminating video and attendant social media commentary provoke behavioral reactions. Schoolmates at first are fascinated and then cruelly dismissive of her plight. Her teachers try to ignore the escalating disruption to school routine and then lash out by removing her from classes as they’re attempting to deal with the much weightier issue of her teacher’s arrest. Neighbors and family acquaintances whisper and snipe, but nobody comes to Hitomi’s defense, not even her best friends or her mother, who can only criticize.

This examination of the viral spread of personal tragedies will seem regrettably familiar. Although Ogata’s visual style breaks scenes into brief segments that consistently cut to black, like a message flashing across a screen, he carefully structures the series of events to chart the progression of Hitomi’s humiliations.

After Hiroki rejects her, he compounds her shame by releasing his own intimate video of the two of them together. When a couple of his rougher acquaintances start hitting on Hitomi, he doesn’t intervene, leaving her to fend helplessly against their horrific assaults. Once tragedy inevitably strikes, the damage gets compounded by media outlets ambushing Hitomi’s family, friends and schoolmates for interviews and ill-informed commentary.

By dissecting the rising social condemnation surrounding an ordinary teenager’s behavior, Ogata exposes not just the victim, but all of those who presume to judge her and attempt to disassociate themselves from their own unseemly actions. It’s a timely critique that will doubtless fall on deaf ears.

Production company: Paranoid Kitchen
Cast: Urara Matsubayashi, Atomu Mizuishi, Mariko Tsutsui, Nanami Hidaka, Sakiko Kato
Director: Takaomi Ogata
Screenwriters: Takaomi Ogata, Fuki Ikeda
Producers: Takaomi Ogata, Hiroyuki Onogawa
Director of photography: Kenichi Negishi
Editor: Yumi Sawai 
Music: Makoto Tanaka
Venue: Hawaii International Film Festival
Sales: Geta Films

78 minutes