Japanese tyro helmer Junichi Kanai explores the gray areas of date rape with empathy and insight in “Again,” centered around an adolescent victim whose complex reactions encompass more than pain, anger and desire for justice or revenge. Tightly directed and played by an emotionally attuned cast, the film not only provides a credible class-based framework for its characters’ motives, but also achieves a full coming-of-age portrait, capturing the confusion of first love as well as a fraught mother-daughter dynamic. The pic has a good shot at festivals, though its TV-style production values and conventional, expositional style will limit its release potential to home formats.
Following her father’s death in a car accident, high schooler Hatsumi (Aoi Yoshikura) moves to a new neighborhood, where she throws herself into track-and-field training. With the friendship of amiable classmate Mari (Yuko Araki), she seems to be making a fresh start. However, tensions simmer between Hatsumi and her mother, Keiko (Mayumi Asaka), a dour attorney who demands that her daughter quit her sole hobby to cram for college entry exams.
Hatsumi befriends cool-looking dude-on-the-fringe Ryutaro (Yuya Yagira, “Nobody Knows”), who ekes out a living by sifting through garbage for recyclables. The two are instantly attracted to each other, but when Hatsumi finds that she can’t spend time with him without devising all kinds of lies, she begins to resent Keiko’s high expectations and controlling behavior.
The film’s almost cliched bicycle sequences and squeaky-clean bourgeois background display all the traits of Japan’s popular “Hatsukoi” (puppy love) genre. So it comes as a rude shock when, after the two lose contact with each other for a few days, Ryutara boorishly forces himself upon Hatsumi.
As the narrative shifts gears into a legal drama, a different side to Keiko emerges. She gains gravitas not only as Hatsumi’s protector, but also as a staunch fighter for a woman’s right not to be humiliated or intimidated throughout such an ordeal. Her insistence that Hatsumi “has done nothing wrong,” and her speech to Ryutaro’s defense lawyer on the enormity of rape’s impact, are unusually outspoken for a Japanese film.
Ironically, Keiko’s principles are undermined by her disregard for the quirks of an adolescent’s heart; Hatsumi’s emotional condition is implied by the Japanese title, which means “Won’t forgive you but still miss you.” The parallel presentation of two divergent but equally valid responses to the situation is what makes “Again” thought-provoking, if contentious, as when a scene in which Keiko sternly reproaches Ryutaro is crosscut with Hatsumi dreamily cruising on her bicycle, basking in memories of happier moments with Ryutaro. The film comes into its own in a deftly orchestrated scene in which Hatsumi bravely seeks her own form of closure. Kanai could have ended on this graceful note, but instead pushes on with redundant coda and a borderline corny metaphor.
Model-actress Yoshikura is generally unforced but less confident in the emotionally intense scenes. Asaka’s initial moments, especially in Keiko’s shouting matches with Hatsumi, are often fairly one-note, but she becomes less of a tiger-mother stereotype in the later half. Cast in a pivotal role yet allotted brief screen time, Yagira isn’t allowed to lend Ryutaro much heft, but he retains an aura of appealing unpredictability.
Tech credits are passable, although, like many Japanese independent films, the pic is overlit, with a flat visual texture.