Japanese auteur, poet and cult favourite director Sono Sion (“Love Exposure”) returns with “Himizu” (which translates as ‘mole’), another tale of disaffected youth and brutal murder. Originally based on the manga of the same name by Minoru Furuya, the script was updated by Sono to reflect the disaster which struck the country on 11th March 2011, giving the film a post-apocalyptic look and feel. As with most of the director’s outings, the film is a darkly lyrical affair, and one which stands out all the more for the fact that it manages to find humanity and even an odd kind of hope amongst the rubble and violence. The film enjoyed a successful run at international festivals, screening in competition at Venice just 6 months after the tragedy, where its lead stars Shota Sometani (“Life Back Then”) and Fumi Nikaido received the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best New Young Actor and Actress.
Set against a background of a ruined country wrecked by an unnamed disaster, the film focuses on a 15 year old youth called Sumida (Shota Sometani), who lives in a shack, dropping out of school to run his family’s boat rental business. Beaten, hated and ignored in equal measures by his mother and father (Watanabe Makiko and Mitsuishi Ken), Sumida does his best to live a quiet, normal life while fighting off debt collectors and gangsters. Aside from a ragtag group of squatters made homeless by the catastrophe, the only person who cares about Sumida is his classmate Chazawa (Nikaido Fumi), an odd girl and self-confessed stalker who dedicates herself to helping him however she can, whether he likes it or not. It all gradually becomes too much for the tortured boy and he starts to tip over into homicidal madness, while Chazawa tries to pull him back from the brink.
Almost every frame and scene of “Himizu”, packed with bleak locations and tsunami imagery suggesting a country stunned by disaster and in a state of physical, moral and economic disarray. This gives the film a powerful sense of currency, as well as underlining its themes, depicting a younger generation utterly abandoned by their elders, who themselves have lost hope and have nothing to offer other than hostility and torments. Brutality is inherent in every child-parent bond, with Sumida on the receiving end of countless beatings from his father, and Chazawa’s mother constantly planning her death. As a result of growing up in such a hateful void, with school failing to provide anything other than useless platitudes, Sumida’s descent into violent rage is from early on clearly inevitable, a tragic, though unavoidable fate. His quest for meaning and identity makes for gripping and extremely affecting viewing, playing out in frequently surprising fashion, and the film is fiercely dramatic in near-Shakespearian fashion, backed by a sombre classical score.
“Himizu” at the same time sees Sono moving away somewhat from the surreal nihilism of his ‘Hate Trilogy’ (“Love Exposure”, “Cold Fish” and the recent “Guilty of Romance”) to something a little more optimistic, the absence of hope somehow not being seen as the be all and end all. Indeed, the film is weirdly upbeat, partly through the relationship between Sumida and Chazawa, which though itself marred by abuse is highly touching, her (admittedly weird) selflessness suggesting a kind of undefined better future. Similarly, the collection of eccentric individuals living around the lake, (including comedian and Sono regular Den Den) make for some funny and warm scenes, portrayed as adults cut adrift from society who have reverted to a playful, childlike state. The various characters all act as different influences on Sumida, and to a large extent to film feels like a humanistic struggle for his soul, an unconventional tug of war between good and evil. This is bolstered by the fantastic performances by Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido, both of whom are stunning and wholly convincing in their difficult roles, and well-deserving of their awards.
The film also differs from other Sono efforts through its absence of over the top surrealism and violence. Although there are several vicious and bloody scenes scattered throughout, these don’t stand out as much as they have in his earlier films, and are far more woven into its fabric and themes. Clocking in at over two hours, the film is undeniably a touch on the long side, and is subject to a few long and meandering passages in the middle act, though this actually fits its ambitions well and helps to further its depiction of a country in chaos and decline.
“Himizu” is another bold, striking masterwork by Sono Sion, and one that sees him successfully managing to combine and expand his usual approach with something a little more grounded and less perverse. Although not explicitly about the 11th March, it’s as powerful and memorable a film is ever likely to be made on the subject, and sees the director on thoughtful, mature form as he considers the moral and existential crisis being faced by the younger generation, a message not only applicable to Japan, but anywhere in the world.
Shion Sono (director) / Minoru Furuya (manga), Shion Sono (screenplay)
CAST: Shôta Sometani … Yuichi
Fumi Nikaidô … Keiko
Tetsu Watanabe … Shozo
Mitsuru Fukikoshi … Keita tamura
Megumi Kagurazaka … Keiko tamura