'River’s Edge' ('Ribazu ejji'): Film Review | Filmart 2018

River's Edge- Still 1 -Berlin International Film Festival - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A graphic vision of Tokyo teens.

Director Isao Yukisada brings to the screen Kyoko Okazaki’s cult manga about Japanese teenagers in the 1990s.

For a cult teen manga about the angst of high school kids in a Tokyo suburb, River’s Edge (Ribazu ejji) feels more like an original work of cinema than an adaptation.

Director Isao Yukisada (Sunflower, Parade) brings a sinking feeling of dark realism to his band of well-etched characters, and there is little that happens in the live-action film (well, maybe one thing) that is too outre to believe. Still, the story is strongly tinged with a homemade Japanese flavor that may prove too exotic for foreign viewers.

Laced with violence and graphic sex, the original comic book by Kyoko Okazaki, which was serialized in the mid-1990s, chillingly describes the emptiness of kids who seem to have no guidance from their parents or teachers, and no direction to follow beyond their basic instincts. In Misaki Setoyama’s screen adaptation, it’s an ugly world inside and outside the school, but the intense humanity of two vividly portrayed students, a nonconformist girl and a gay boy, provides some kind of moral point of reference.

The disjointed opening scenes unfold like a puzzle. There’s a mysterious flash-forward to a burning body falling from an apartment window, which turns out to be so unmotivated it has to be explained in the dialogue. There is the first of numerous “interviews” in which a girl answers the questions of an off-screen questioner. The story finally gets in gear when Wakakusa (Fumi Nikaidou) fearfully breaks into an abandoned science lab at night and discovers one of her classmates, Ichiro Yamada (Ryo Yoshizawa), trussed up in a cabinet. He is completely naked, bruised and beaten.

This is just the first time she has to rescue him from her mindlessly violent boyfriend and lover Kannonzaki (TV actor Shuhei Uesugi), who is literally a loose "cannon." Though he’s respectful around Wakakusa, he’s happy to punch out or strangle anyone else who crosses him. When it’s his turn to be interviewed by the camera, he focuses on his broken home. (In general, parents and teachers are invisible in the film.)

What offshore audiences are likely to miss is that River’s Edge is set on the cusp of a violent era of terrorism and earthquakes in Japan, suggested in the darkness of the story and in Kenji Maki’s cinematography. Elements straight out of manga horror include a pair of goofy young fishermen swapping tall tales, while on the other side of the river sinister industrial smoke pours out of chimneys.

Fields of tall weeds cloaking the riverbank is where Yamada takes his savior Wakakusa, to show her his “treasure” — an abandoned corpse that he found a year ago, which he visits whenever he’s hurt and angry. A skeleton now, this gruesome memento mori calms him down.

Apparently stoic about being beaten up and humiliated time and again, Yamada inwardly seethes with rage and revenge fantasies. In one scene, he’s shown covered in red welts and wearing an eye patch as he turns tricks in a hotel room with a middle-aged man. Handsome and disdainful, Ryo generates pangs of sympathy in the role of victim; less so when it emerges he’s dating a naive younger girl, Tajima (Aoi Morikawa), as a cover for his sexual preferences. Tajima’s childish illusions about him will lead to a terrible conclusion.

The strength of the film is less on the action than the fully embodied characters, like Kozue, a bulimic underage fashion model who is repeatedly shown stuffing herself on the bathroom floor before throwing up. Played by the pixieish but strangely mature Sumire, she is Yamada’s other female pal and knows about the skeleton on the riverbank.

Finally there is Rumi (Shiori Doi), the class tramp, who, despite being Wakakusa’s friend at school, gets it on with Kannonzaki in a steamy bedroom scene that includes cocaine, bondage and a can of hair spray. To the filmmakers’ credit, her flooziness is depicted as just another symptom of generational malaise, like Kannonzaki’s emotional neediness that expresses itself as uncontrolled violence toward gays and women. The film’s closing scenes don’t try to compromise with a false happy ending, and they leave a feeling of melancholy more than hope for the future. A poem by sci-fi writer William Gibson sums up Wakakusa and Yamada’s gritted-teeth outlook.

Perversely shot in an old-fashioned, claustrophobic 4:3 ratio, Maki’s photography often presents a strange beauty, like the moodiness of a trellised bridge at night over dark waters. Hiroko Sebu’s score is suitably dark, though Kenji Ozawa’s energetic end-credit theme song may only play to Japanese audiences.

Production company: Kino Films - Kinoshita Group
Cast: Fumi Nikaidou, Ryo Yoshizawa, Aoi Morikawa, Shuhei Uesugi, Sumire, Shiori Doi
Director: Isao Yukisada
Screenwriter: Misaki Setoyama
Producers: Shunsuke Koga, Shinji Ogawa, Tsuyoshi Sugiyama, Takahiro Yoshizawa
Director of photography: Kenji Maki
Production designer: Takahisa Taguchi
Costume designer: Masumi Sugimoto
Editor: Tsuyoshi Imai
Music: Hiroko Sebu, Kenji Ozawa (theme song)
118 minutes