Director Sion Sono’s background in avant-garde poetry is a heavily felt influence in his new movie Himizu. The use and reference to poetry as well as the cinematically poetic style of the film such as the long still shots and classical music score indentify the film as a poetic project. Whether it works or not however is questionable.
Based on the manga of the same name, Himizu follows the story of a fourteen year-old boy named Sumida whose family owns a boat rental business in Japan’s tsunami-hit area. After his apathetic mother leaves him a farewell note before disappearing and with no help from his straying, abusive father, Sumida must leave school to run the family business. Such is the pressure Sumida has grown up with that he pretends not be fazed his parents’ great hostility at his very being, stating he simply wishes to live a quiet, humble life. In truth, he wants to bury his head in the sand to safeguard himself from the aggression surrounding him, like a ‘himizu’ (Japanese mole). Yet the constant torture his father inflicts upon Sumida, frequently asking his son to just give up and die, proves the impossibility of such a modest dream.
Adding to the disquieting pain of this community is the oddly similar case of schoolgirl Keiko. Though her parents are more middle-class than Sumida’s, her parents also detest her presence in their lives, believing they would be ‘better off without her’. In an extremely eerie and unsettling act we see her parents build a hanging post in the living room as they ask her to commit suicide. In her cringingly desperate search for love, Keiko has developed an obsessive crush on Sumida. He is the only deity she worships, and his words are her scripture, illustrated as she writes his words upon her bedroom wall. Unable to detach herself from him, she forces her way into his life against his (often physical) resistance and begins working at the rental shack. Also staying on site is a number of displaced victims of the tsunami who Sumida has allowed to camp outside.
As Sumida’s anguish ferments over the duration of the film with the constant pressure from his deadbeat father, he is driven to break out in a violent frenzy against those he sees as the evil of society. The most pertinent question of this film is what led to the warped nature of this community in the first place. One of the elderly campers Shozo recognises that his generation are the past, and Sumida’s is the future. In the case of Sumida and Keiko’s parents, their inexpressible fear of the future leads them to try to extinguish its human representation-their children. It is this puzzling fear of the future which the film tries to convey that complicates the tone and message.
Early in the film, in a scene so absurdly overblown it is difficult not to see it as pure comedy, Sumida and Keiko’s teacher proclaims each child is a flower. He instructs them not to give up, they must have a dream. Sono’s derision of this authoritarian figure is unmistakable. Significantly, he points to the Fukushima disaster and tragedies of the past such as Hiroshima to attest to the endurance of the Japanese people. Sumida responds by declaring that ‘ordinary is best’. The mixed message the Japanese often impart onto the youth to be both exceptionally good and successful and simultaneously fit into society and not stick out leads to great confusion, as seen with the young characters in this film. Even when Sumida snaps, his acts of violence are still undertaken with the good of society in mind. Sono’s film suggests that Japanese society is very much damaged by its past, and fearful of its future considering the recent natural disaster. Due to national pride, it has buried its worries and has consequently become confused. The question of identity is constantly reiterated, from a crazed young attacker in the streets who shouts ‘who am I?’ to the poem both Sumida and Keiko recite. The lines ‘I know death who devours all/ I know everything but myself’ from Francois Villon’s ‘Ballade’ are poignantly appropriate for the teens.
The reworking of the original script to have the disaster as a looming backdrop is done somewhat clumsily, as it can often feel as though stark shots of the tsunami-hit area have just been thrown in at opportune moments. Yet the over-layering of this event upon the original story does suit the excessive problems Japan’s society faces in the wake of the crisis. Viewers should be aware that this film is in no way a form of entertainment, but it does implant itself in your brain, leaving you to analyse the expansive questions it raises about both the characters and the Japanese culture they often signify. Despite committed performances by Shota Sometani (Sumida) and Fumi Nikaido (Keiko), Sion Sono has taken on too much thematically and developed far too little.
Himizu is released exclusively at the IFI, Dublin from 22 June 2012. [Watch the trailer]