(Screened at the 2013 Raindance Film Festival)
Though teen friendships can be an intense business, they can also have their sinister side, as is amply demonstrated by the dark Japanese high school drama “Shady”. Marking the debut of the 25-year-old writer director Ryohei Watanabe, the film starts off innocently enough, following the burgeoning bond between two young bullied girls, before heading off into unexpectedly nasty territory. Despite its subject matter, the film has gone down well with the critics, playing to acclaim at a variety of international festivals, including winning the Entertainment Award at the PIA Film Festival.
Mimpi*ß plays Misa, a slightly chubby and socially awkward young loner, who passes most of her days at school with her head down, trying to avoid the attention of bullies, her only companions being her pet bird and the biology club goldfish. Misa is understandably surprised when the beautiful Izumi (Izumi Okamura) enters her life, insisting they become best friends and trying to spend as much time with her as possible. The relationship between the two girls quickly becomes amazingly intimate, though Misa soon starts to realise that Izumi is hiding something unpleasant behind her pretty smile.
It’s quite hard to believe that former commercials director Ryohei Watanabe is only 25, as “Shady” really is an incredibly assured debut feature. Starting off in vaguely cute and quirky fashion, and with fantastic performances from the two young leads, the film initially offers a painfully believable depiction of teen angst and awkwardness, Watanabe showing a great eye for the kind of details that really bring the characters to life. Taking its time to build up its central relationship, and subtly but convincingly revealing the psychological makeup of its protagonists, it slowly draws the viewer into their lives while throwing in the odd hint that things are definitely not quite right. This keeps the viewer off-balance until the film goes over the edge, and without wishing to give anything away, when it does dive into madness, the sympathy felt for the characters makes it really quite startling. Dealing with obsession, possessiveness and control taken to an extreme degree, the film comes across like a more grounded and violent version of “Tomie”, with questions of identity and sexuality coming to the fore and muddying the waters.
The film is extremely well made, with some great, muted visuals and cinematography from Katstuki Tsuji that underscores the characters’ isolation and increasingly cocooned world, as do their cramped home environments. While its end destination, or at least the fact that things are going to turn frightening, is never in too much doubt, Watanabe does a great job of making the film tense throughout, with plenty of unexpected jolts and offbeat touches. Similarly, even when the film does eventually get down to its bloody violence, he works in a certain creepy ambiguity that makes for a memorable conclusion, underlined by a post-credits scene which is definitely worth sticking around for.
“Shady” really is an amazing debut for Ryohei Watanabe, and a gripping psychological drama that comes with a vicious emotional punch. Succeeding both as a dark depiction of teen loneliness and infatuation and as a portrayal of homicidal lunacy, it’s a taut, involving and disturbing film which will doubtless continue to find admirers.
Ryohei Watanabe (director) / Ryohei Watanabe (screenplay)
CAST: Hiroki Horikawa