In Daihachi Yoshida’s quietly brilliant ensemble piece “The Kirishima Thing,” the social dynamics of a Japanese high school are laid out in almost topographical terms, the camera moving through various cliques, clubs and enclaves in ever-changing patterns. A single piece of unsettling news — that Kirishima, the school’s acknowledged leader and star athlete, has suddenly quit the volleyball team — sends shock waves throughout the student body, creating intersecting ripples that touch everyone. Playing like an affectionately distanced, Zen version of “Clueless,” the film garnered the Japanese Academy’s picture and director awards, though its superb, sprawling cast of uniform-clad actors may pose some confusion initially for foreign audiences.
The film unfolds over five days, the first of which, Friday, is replayed from five different vantage points. The action, such as it is, mainly occurs after class. The elite shun the extracurricular activities best left to lower-class nerds, instead choosing to hang around and wait for Kirishima to finish volleyball practice, even after the star player mysteriously disappears. Kirishima is never seen, serving as what the French might call the film’s “structuring absence.”
Among the film’s various groupings, certain distinct personalities emerge. There’s film geek Maeda (Ryunosuke Kamiki), whose admiration for George Romero’s zombie oeuvre knows no bounds. Hiroki (Masahiro Higashide) is good at everything, and pensively, almost enviously, observes those around him, single-mindedly absorbed in their passionate pursuits. Dedicated band leader and female geek Sawashima (Suzuka Ohgo) harbors a secret crush on Hiroki.
But then there are the four “in” girlfriends: Risa (Mizuki Yamamoto), hurt by b.f. Kirishima’s failure to inform her of his plans or answer her frantic phone calls; Sana (Mayu Matsuoka), Hiroki’s possessive g.f.; Mika (Kurumi Shimizu), who secretly empathizes with the short, untalented volleyball player slotted to take Kirishima’s place; and Kasumi (Ai Hashimoto), who yearns to acknowledge her casual junior-high friendship with Maeda, but fears being caught talking to a nerd.
The talented young thesps deftly navigate a script of fluidly interwoven threads, the school depicted as a series of separate but interconnected spaces, with the cool kids generally having the run of the place while the nerds huddle behind heavy curtains or in closed-off rooms. But helmer Yoshida also maps out the hidden connections that defy this system’s rigid, hierarchical boundaries, as lines become blurred and spheres intermingle in the wake of Kirishima going AWOL. Sawashima practices her saxophone on the roof overlooking the basketball court, where Hiroki shoots hoops with friends. Hiroki, who stopped playing baseball, secretly watches a dedicated ex-teammate endlessly practice his swing. Film club wiz Maeda starts shooting “Student Council of the Living Dead,” his choice of a rooftop location pitting him against the Hiroki-gazing Sawashima and setting up the film’s semi-hallucinatory ending.