It takes a willingness to empathize with alternative perspectives to appreciate the sensitivity and insight of “Just Pretended to Hear,” a muted, slow-moving depiction of a young girl’s psychological and spiritual uncertainty following her mother’s death. Nurse-turned-helmer Kaori Imaizumi sounds out the protag’s inner voice with the stealth and intimacy of an eavesdropper, broaching topics at once mundane and metaphysical from a child’s ingenuous standpoint. Pic’s Berlinale Generation Kplus special mention should make family channels prick up their ears, though its pensive mood is more likely to strike a chord with adults.
Eleven-year-old Sachi (Hana Nonaka) becomes emotionally and socially adrift when she loses her mother in a fatal car accident. Her relative Yumiko (Yasumi Yashima) reassures her that the deceased continue to watch over their loved ones. What might have been routine condolences are taken quite literally by Sachi, who desperately wishes to believe in a spirit world. And there’s the rub: If her mother’s soul lives on, so do things that go bump in the night.
At school, her best friends treat her with kid gloves, yet they unnerve Sachi with their incessantly ghoulish tales. Sachi’s existential questioning is intensified by the arrival of transfer student Nozomi (Meru Gouda), who is so petrified of ghosts that she wets her pants for fear of going to the restroom alone. Although Nozomi (whose name symbolically means “hope”) isn’t the brightest crayon in the box, Sachi sees her as a kindred soul because of her paranormal intuitions, until an outlook-shifting switcheroo occurs.
The pic not only represents bereavement from a unique, subjective angle, but does so with a film language that is understated and largely shorn of dramatic, hokey dialogue. Certain scenes ambiguously evoke a spectral presence by suggestively playing on half-lit crannies and half-heard sounds. They project Sachi’s inner world as one rife with contradiction, wavering between fear and fantasy, hope and despair.
“Just Pretended to Hear” also examines subjects that one least expects of such domestic dramas, from school bullying to the way Sachi gradually comes to grips with reality, even as her father (Takayuki Sugiki) starts to lose his grip in a spooky yet piteous way. Such behavior underlines the pic’s exploration of dependency, whether it’s her father’s attachment to his late wife (and all the domestic comfort one presumes she provided), mentally challenged Nozomi’s neediness or Sachi’s reliance on Nozomi to dispel her spiritual skepticism.
The predominantly non-pro thesps are slightly wooden in crowd scenes but warm up in more intimate, emotionally charged situations. With tighter editing, numerous flat pauses (especially a self-indulgent long take of Sachi by the bridge) might have been avoided, thus rendering the protags’ journey more intense and moving. Other tech credits make resourceful use of the film’s modest budget.