(Screened at the 2013 Raindance Film Festival)
Though another Japanese drama about high school kids and their lives might not sound like anything to get too excited about, “The Kirishima Thing” arrives riding a wave of impressive critical acclaim, having won top honours at the Awards of the Japanese Academy, as well as other prizes at home and abroad. Adapted from Asai Ryo’s popular and much-praised debut novel, the film should also be of considerable interest for the fact that it was directed by Yoshida Daihachi, who was responsible for the amazing “Funuke, Show Some Love You Losers!”, which still ranks as one of the best Japanese comedies of recent years. Co-written by Daihachi and Kiyasu Kohei, the film explores the social hierarchy of the schoolyard through the effects of the abrupt disappearance of the titular student, with a fine ensemble cast of young talent.
Following a fractured, non-linear narrative, the film starts off with the news spreading around school that the popular volleyball player and all round big man on campus Kirishima has quit the team and hasn’t been seen since. This has an immediate effect on most of his fellow students, in particular his best friend Hiroki (Higashide Masahiro, “Crows Explode”) and girlfriend Risa (actress model Yamamoto Mizuki), who try to figure where he is and what’s happened. Meanwhile, badminton player Kasumi (Hashimoto Ai, “Sadako”) starts feeling tension in her group of friends, while the nerdy Maeda (Kamiki Ryunosuke, “The Borrower Arrietty”) tries to make a zombie opus around the school with his film club group. With Kirishima’s disappearance leaving a gaping void, relationships within the various factions shift, and rivalries grow as the social order struggles to reassert itself.
There’s thankfully a great deal more to “The Kirishima Thing” than the teen angst suggested by its plot, and this shouldn’t be much of a surprise, given that Yoshida Daihachi is easily one of Japan’s most interesting directors, and a master of offbeat, dry humour. Without having read Asai Ryo’s novel, it’s hard to say how faithfully it sticks to the text, though with it being an omnibus tale with a large set of characters, Daihachi made the decision to focus on a handful of the key and most interesting players, chiefly would-be director Maeda. This works very well, and the film still boasts a considerable cast of characters who pop in and out of the story and its many subplots and threads, enough to give a real feeling of the vast complexities and many levels of social interaction that make up school life. Impressively, the film still has a very strong sense of character, amongst the supporting cast as well as its leads, with some great attention to personal details across the board, and this really helps to keep the viewer involved. The young stars are all excellent, especially Kamiki Ryunosuke and Hashimoto Ai, and the film rings true throughout, with some surprisingly effective emotional beats and some very rewarding payoffs.
Daihachi also scores highly for the film’s ambitiously structured and non-linear narrative, which jumps around in time, repeating scenes from differing perspectives in a delightfully creative manner. It’s an excellent example of intelligent storytelling, and serves well to further underline the many facets of the social hierarchy and the groups within the school, and the ways in which Kirishima’s vanishing slowly but surely comes to affect them all. As with the director’s earlier outings, the film also has a subtle, ironic sense of humour, and this makes for some very funny scenes, the tone being at once playful, grounded and occasionally dark, dealing with bullying, loneliness, social awkwardness and unrequited love. Thankfully, Daihachi never takes the easy route with the comedy or the film’s drama, and unlike many other high school films, there’s no meanness or laughing at his characters or cheap exploitation of the usual stereotypes, the script having a genuine, even affectionate feel, that really pulls the viewer in.
The film also benefits from some very strong direction, with some creative camera work making sure that the repeated scenes really do feel as if they’re coming from differing perspectives and are offering something new. The school itself is shot in a fascinating manner, and rather than resembling a prison as is often the case in the genre, it takes on a character of its own, shifting colours, angles and other visual techniques being skilfully used to represent the emotions and experiences of the kids. Daihachi keeps things moving at a fast pace, and though for the first half hour or so the parade of new faces can be a bit bewildering, it’s a fitting reflection of the way anyone might feel during their first day at school, and the film doesn’t take long at all to truly grip.
“The Kirishima Thing” really is captivating from start to finish, and is definitely one of the best films of the year so far, not only from Japan, but anywhere in the world. Well-deserving of its award winning streak and hype, it’s another masterful turn from Yoshida Daihachi – certainly, it’ll be interesting to see where his career goes from here.
Daihachi Yoshida (director) / Ryô Asai (based on the novel by), Kohei Kiyasu, Daihachi Yoshida (screenplay)
CAST: Ryûnosuke Kamiki … Ryoya Maeda
Ai Hashimoto … Kasumi Higashihara
Suzuka Ohgo … Aya Sawashima
Masahiro Higashide … Hiroki Kikuchi
Kurumi Shimizu … Mika Miyabe