A Nipponese boy from a broken home tries to overcome all the violence and hardship in his life in “Himizu,” the latest pic from prolific scribe-helmer Sion Sono (“Cold Fish,” “Suicide Club”). Originally conceived as a straightforward adaptation of Minoru Furuya’s eponymous manga, pic’s script was altered to include the aftermath of last March’s earthquake and tsunami, finally fusing an originally extremely bleak coming-of-age story with a more hopeful overlay — despite the addition of more misery. Though not an entirely happy marriage, result earned a prime real-estate slot in the Venice competish, which should translate to Sono’s widest exposure yet.
Sono has never been a very disciplined filmmaker, whether in terms of running time or thematic coherence, and his movies have a frayed quality to them that betrays both his earlier calling as a poet — one for whom juxtaposition, repetition and effect can take precedence over more classical narrative logic — and the speed with which he makes films (his sexy and violent “Guilty of Romance” preemed at Cannes earlier this year).
His latest, named after a mole species endemic to Japan, focuses on two junior-high kids for whom sex is uncharted territory, though physical brutality occurs throughout. Set in the aftermath of the disaster, the leads embody innocence defiled by natural, familial and societal violence. In a departure from the manga, these tainted pure souls also represent the future of the nation for whom it’s important to have aspirations.
Protag Sumida (Shota Sometani) is a mercurial boy whose personal credo is “normality rules.” Rather than daring to dream, he’d prefer a normal, respectable life looking after the family’s tiny boat-rental operation. This is easier said than done, given that his mother’s run off — her wry goodbye note reads “Have a nice life” — and his drunkard dad (Ken Mitsuishi) comes home only occasionally to beat him, steal any money he might have and tell him he wishes him dead.
At school, a stalkerish but cute classmate, Chazawa (Fumi Nikaidou), is in love with Sumida. She’s a poetry nut, reciting verses from French vagabond bard Francois Villon (lit references are a recurring theme in the helmer’s work), including the significant line “I know all things/but myself.”
The kids are obviously destined for one another, though initially Sumida aggressively rebuffs Chazawa’s advances. Things grow more complicated when it emerges that Sumida’s dad owes the equivalent of $80,000 to a yakuza moneylender (Denden). Since his dad is missing, Sumida is held responsible for coughing up the dough or risk being made to suffer at the hands of the moneylenders’ thugs.
Because Sono tries to set the manga’s storyline, with its stylized violence, in the very real, post-earthquake/tsunami disaster area, “Himizu” struggles to find a coherent tone. Tracking shots of the wasteland caused by the quake and tsunami, set to Mozart’s overused “Requiem,” don’t jive with pic’s more caricatured approach to physical violence. Though Sono’s no stranger to tonal shifts, the different origins of the natural disaster and the mano-a-mano knife and gun fights prohibit symbiosis. The setting never becomes more than a hyperrealist backdrop for a manga adaptation (the man-made nuclear disaster that followed is barely discussed).
Typically out-there Sion flourishes, such as a subplot involving a pickpocket (Yosuke Kubozuka) who burgles a neo-Nazi killer, the random appearance of an almost naked woman with an iron chain attached to her leg, or the fact Chazawa’s parents are building a custom-made gallows for her, move the tone further away from realism, while at the same time it’s suggested the pic’s specifically set in Japan in May 2011. As seen against the realistic backdrop, the helmer’s customary pitch-black humor won’t fly for some auds.
Nonetheless, in the lead, Sometani (“A Liar and a Broken Girl”) proves more than capable of sustaining interesting in his character’s plight. He seems to be the only character able to register genuine emotions, even if most of them appear to stem from his teenage rage, frustration and confusion more than any direct cause. Other characters are more one-note.
D.p. Sohei Tanikawa, using a Red camera, keeps close to his characters for the exposition scenes, augmenting the pic’s immediacy. As in all Sion films, the current edit runs too long, though it’s hard not be moved by the simple finale. Other tech credits are OK.