Based on an autobiographical novel by a Japanese cartoonist, pic begins as an intriguing coming-of-age story that ultimately becomes confusingly overwrought with symbolism. Artfully done but muddled, film, which was referred to as “Shizuko’s Silence” in Hawaii fest press kits, doesn’t seem destined to make much noise beyond the festival circuit.
Uncomfortably dealing with the abuse of a 14-year-old girl by her stepfather, the movie centers on Shizuko (Mami Nakamura, in an impressive debut), who dreams of being an animator.
With Shizuko’s father having abandoned the family, her mother takes in a lover who insists that Shizuko and her sister call him “Father” and imposes tyrannical discipline on the girls and their mother (Kaori Momoi), who all chafe at his supervision.
When Shizuko becomes pregnant by a young classmate, the stepfather begins to force himself on her as “punishment,” to which her mother surprisingly has virtually no reaction. With nowhere to turn, Shizuko mentally escapes into her drawings, a triumph of production design where she meets an imaginary boy who helps guide her.
The outset is promising, with strong performances and ample humor involving Shizuko’s little sister (Ayumi Yajima) and the stepfather (Micho Akiyama), who treats his prized refrigerator more affectionately than he does the family.
After that, however, director Genjiro Arato engages in a pretty but confusing mix of fantasy and flashback, robbing the movie of its emotional impact and narrative flow.
Those elements might have worked better had the movie more effectively connected Shizuko’s art world with her fleeing reality, but the girl proves so capable the linkage isn’t clear, and the editing makes it difficult to distinguish between the two. Little explanation is provided regarding the confounding behavior by the mother in turning her back on her daughter.
Technically, pic does provide a beguiling mix of sight and sound, from the cartoon-world sets and Akiko Ashizawa’s camerawork to Yosuke Yamashita’s pretty score — composed and performed on just one instrument, the melodica.