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Posted by martinteller on June 8, 2014

Yuichi Sumida (Shôta Sometani) is a 14-year-old boy who lives alone with his mother (Makiko Watanabe), helping run the family’s boat rental business.  The closest thing he has to friends is the group of tsunami refugees he lets squat on his property, including the paternal Tamura (Mitsuru Fukikoshi).  Yuichi’s real father is an abusive deadbeat who only comes around when he needs money, and when he does show up he makes sure to tell Yuichi that he wishes his son didn’t exist.  The mother isn’t much better, and eventually runs off with a stranger.  Keiko (Fumi Nikaidô) is Sumida’s classmate, a high-spirited lover of poetry… and Yuichi.  Her parents are no picnic, either… in fact, they’re gleefully constructing a gallows for her.  Yuichi repels Keiko’s attentions, becoming bitter in the face of a cruel world.  Another appearance by his father — now hunted by the yakuza boss (Den Den) who loaned him money — pushes Yuichi over the edge.

Keiko puts a rock in her pocket every time Yuichi does something abusive to her.  When her pockets are full, she says, she’ll start throwing the stones at him.  Even the good-natured, upbeat young girl has her breaking point, and Sion Sono depicts a nation that has been driven far beyond its breaking point.  A country reeling from the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, a country crying out in pain.  This is an oppressively cynical film, and not always easy to watch.  As we know, Sono does not flinch from disturbing material, but it’s a more unsettling experience to watch Yuichi slap Keiko around.  It’s difficult to stomach at times, but it indicates the level of anger Sono feels, where abuse breeds abuse, and minds are twisted by tragedy into believing that violence is the way to make yourself understood.

The darkness is occasionally punctured by humor (usually black humor) and the appearances by Keiko (a terrific performance by Nikaidô).  Her bubbly personality brings some much-needed relief to the grim proceedings, and I wish the film featured her more prominently… and didn’t have Yuichi constantly knocking her down for her efforts.  But underneath all the nihilism is a heart… a wounded heart, one yearning for love and kindness.  The heart finally makes it heard loud and clear in the exceptionally moving ending, a bittersweet cathartic release.  And it was a relief that the film didn’t get nearly as nihilistic as it could have.  I had fears that it would become a violent revenge fantasy, but it’s more morally complex than that.

The cinematography is often gorgeous, and the soundtrack makes excellent use of Mozart and Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” (like Satie’s “Gymnopédie”, a piece that, no matter how overused it is, always stirs something in me).  The story also moves quite swiftly for a 130-minute film, at least for most of it.  It gets a little bogged down towards the end, but not disastrously so.  In all, this isn’t as accomplished, exhilarating or impressive as Sono’s stellar Love Exposure and Noriko’s Dinner Table, but it has some fantastic moments and fine performances.  A painful cry for an end to suffering, but ultimately a rewarding one.  Rating: Very Good (85)


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