Fourteen – Review

by Miguel Douglas


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Fukatsu Ryo stabbed a teacher to death when she was 14 who treated her as an arsonist. Twelve years later, Fukatsu is a teacher at a middle school whilst remaining traumatized by the incident. One day Fukatsu is reunited with Sugino who was a classmate at middle school. Sugino has been teaching piano to one of Fukatsu’s pupils. He is also burdened with a psychological scar. It was verbally inflicted upon him when he was 14 and he gave up playing his favorite piano as a result. Both Fukatsu and Sugino reached adulthood without recovering from their trauma, but they start facing their issues from the past and finding hope to live by keeping company with the 14-year-olds with all sincerity who are living in the present whilst being troubled just as they are.

There is a poignant scene in Fourteen where junior high school teacher Fukatsu and her co-worker Sugino are intimately discussing the foolish choices they themselves made at 14-years-old in reflection of the choices their students make now, with Fukatsu exclaiming that, “We made them simply because we were fourteen.” Even with both of them seriously contemplating over the behavior of their students, they remain conflicted over the reasons as to why their students are acting out the way they do, harkening back to their own behavior in order to make some sense of it all. In many ways, Fourteen is a film concerning one’s own perception of their past and the emotional injuries that stem from it, exploring how such a disruptive adolescence can influence their very livelihood as adults. Their problems all derive from bullying, in which we witness the long-lasting effects that such a devious practice has on an individual.

Director Hirosue Hiromasa—who also plays Sugino in the film—tackles some very complicated issues surrounding Japanese youth, primarily focusing on the mental and physical bullying that occurs within schools and the ramifications of it. Even the reciprocal nature of bullying is explored, with certain students exhibiting a lust for revenge upon their tormentors. Screenwriter Izumi Takahashi deftly interweaves a variety of such personal tales of destructive behavior, with in accordance with Hiromasa’s direction, places Fourteen in a very difficult position of being a meaningful experience albeit somewhat all over the place in terms of its presentation.

While the film addresses some very important social issues, it is altogether a very methodical and protracted film, a direction that may put off many viewers. It’s not that the material showcased here is overly elaborated on, it’s just that the structural nature of it meanders from one student situation to another without much emphasis on why these are important to the narrative of the film. It also doesn’t help that the film’s resolutions to some of these student problems are often incoherent and presented without much impact on the narrative as a whole. One can see that the film is attempting to correlate the complexity of teenage behavior with that of Fukatsu’s and Sugino’s continuing emotional hindrances stemming from their own teenage years, so much of the attention given to numerous students rather than the plight of the adults just seems rather perplexing.

This approach is unfortunate considering the seriousness of the material addressed in the film, with the relevancy of the topic remaining an important issue of Japanese youth even to this day. As recently as November of 2012, the Japanese Ministry of Education released a study showcasing over 144,000 reported cases of bullying experienced by elementary, junior high, and high school students during the first six months of the school year. With Fourteen being released in 2007, one can see that bullying is still an issue within Japanese classrooms even in 2012, with the societal pressure to remedy the dilemma still being addressed. One aspect that the film does well is it never sensationalizes the issue of bullying like so many other films, instead looking at the issue from a genuine perspective that is honest and difficult in what it chooses to portray.

In retrospect, there are no easy solutions to bullying, even though we may like to believe so. Students will lash out against other students for reasons unbeknownst to their peers, let alone adults. But what about those adults that were bullied themselves as teenagers? Where is the discussion of their fate stemming from such abuse? How come their difficulties are rarely addressed? Despite some structural flaws, perhaps this is the lesson to be learned from a film such as Fourteen. It is a challenging film for sure, but it is also rewarding in that it attempts to at least raise issues such as generational bullying, therein courageously exploring a dark chapter that resides between youth and adulthood, with Fourteen never attempting to dramatize it for the sake of entertainment.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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