iSugio

Himizu – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Set after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, all 14-year-old Yuichi Sumida wants to become is a regular boy and live a decent life. His environment though repeatedly drags him into the mud. He runs his parent’s rental boat business, which is located next to a nondescript lake. His mother frequently comes home with different men and soon she leaves him entirely. His father only comes around looking for money. Keiko Chazawa is a classmate of Yuichi Sumida who harbors a severe crush on him. Keiko’s home life isn’t much better than Yuichi’s. Her mother believes her life would be better off without Keiko. Under these circumstances, Keiko pays a visit to Yuichi’s home and begins to uncover the disastrous circumstances that surround him.

Director Sion Sono has always been one to challenge the conventions of filmmaking. With his films dealing with a wide range of topics concerning the human condition, Sono has established himself as a director willing to delve into the dark recesses of the individual and family unit, shining light on the emotionally damaging nature of their existence within a modern society. Whether it’s confronting the boundaries of religion and infatuation in Love Exposure (2008), to the devastating effects that a cult has upon the family unit in Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005), to the psychological deterioration stemming from sexual abuse in Strange Circus (2005), Sono has consistently improved upon his focus of social commentary with each subsequent film of his, expanding the boundaries of what we might consider “taboo” within the framework of cinema.

This approach has certainly garnered him considerable praise as a director unafraid to present to his viewing audience the brutal honesty that coincides with the downtrodden subjects of his films, often times exceeding the boundaries of sexuality and violence to prove a point—which not too many other directors can successfully accomplish as he has. While standing outside the conventional norms of narrative, Sono has always attempted to provide his films with both substance and creativity, bestowing upon them a sense of uniqueness that blends the dynamics of film genres as he sees fit. It’s no doubt because of these reasons that he can allow the actors within his films to deliver very unidealized performances that elevate his films even further, solidifying their status as works unlike many others.

Sono carries on with this tradition with his latest work Himizu, a film based on the manga by author Minoru Furuya. Furuya’s manga presented a dark, nihilistic downward spiral of a teenager bent on destructive means in order to deal with his depression, an approach that Sono reworked after the Tohuko earthquake and tsunami in order to avoid it becoming too bleak of a work. In simplistic terms, Himizu is still a film about hardships—many, many hardships. Whether it’s due to the crushing nature of having to live within the aftermath of a natural disaster, to having cruel parents caring very little for the future of their own kin, Sono’s Himizu is a film teething with an underlying sense of absolute despair and heartache. Considering this approach, the film is perhaps Sono’s most brutish and violent to date, which will certainly be surprising to hear to some longtime viewers of his works. While his past films have often showcased an abundance of violent actions exercised by or inflicted upon his characters, there always remains a sense dramatization to it all, free from becoming entirely too real in a sense due to the often exaggerated framework that surround his films narratives.

Due to this approach, Himizu’s setting involving the destructive aftermath of a natural disaster and the social deterioration that stems from it exerts a sense of realism that amplifies the violence it showcases. The film’s protagonist, Yuichi, essentially goes through a variety of hellish, pugnacious experiences that would appropriately force any individual to simply give up completely on life itself. In many ways, Himizu can be seen more akin to Noriko’s Dinner Table in its adherence to remain absolutely focused on being pragmatic towards the situations the film’s characters find themselves in. In this sense, the film may be too gloomy for some even after Sono’s alterations to the source material, as Yuichi is seen mercilessly beaten both physically and psychologically throughout the course of it. While this doesn’t seem to be exploitative given the narrative offered by Sono, it certainly doesn’t provide much to alleviate the obviously mean-spirited mood of the film as a whole—an approach that some viewers may not be too fond of.

But considering the harsh predicament of the film’s characters, Himizu continues the tradition of showcasing strong performances as seen in Sono’s previous films. Shota Sometani delivers an exuberant performance as the emotionally restrained Yuichi, eliciting all the suppressed rage and guilt that the character calls for given his dire circumstances. He effectively portrays the victimized character as seen in Minoru Furuya’s manga to a great degree, providing all the subtle facial expressions and mannerisms alongside his performance. Yuichi finds himself at a difficult crossroad in his life—does he remain loyal to his parents who care little for him and his future, or does he free himself completely from their disastrous influence? This decision is compounded upon the fact that Yuichi has even more responsibility to uphold to as the caretaker of tsunami refugees that live on his family’s property. Having faced a natural disaster, ever-growing responsibilities as an adult, and a collapsing family structure, Yuichi is faced with a situation where he needs some normality and simply wants to become a respectable adult—but his environment doesn’t allow for him to flourish as one. Equally as impressive is Fumi Nikaido as the encouraging Keiko, who portrays a great companion to Sometani’s Yuichi. While her outward appearance is one of cheerfulness, Nikaido does a fantastic job slowing unveiling the darkness of her character’s life. While her family is seen as one of wealth, we begin to realize that she faces a similar dilemma to that of Yuichi despite her social status, further questioning the role of parents and the abandonment of their children.

This outlook extends far beyond Yuichi and Keiko though, as practically every character within the film is affected by some unforeseen responsibility that forces them to rearrange the way they view their life. Whether it’s the thankfulness offered by the refugees surrounding Yuichi’s home for his generosity in allowing them to stay after they lost everything, to Yoruno losing his entire business thus livelihood after the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, Himizu’s reach as a treatise on the ability for individuals to strive forward through hardship is given considerable strength by the film’s backdrop of the ravaged aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Sono seemingly presents Himizu as a vehicle in which to address not just the strength of the Japanese people, but also the human spirit in general, expressed through the perseverance of Yuichi to overcome his own adversities. It’s quite fitting that the film elicits such a direction given it taking place within the Tohoku region of Japan, the area most devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Sono envisions a life of tragedy for the characters of Himizu, but also provides them hope—like the Japanese people—that tomorrow will be better than yesterday and that the will to live remains stronger that any disaster one faces.

Himizu is a powerfully visceral experience that further presents Sono as one willing to address some very genuine human issues within his films. In many respects, and due to its relevant content, Himizu is perhaps Sono’s most important film to date, mainly because of what it attempts to address. While this is certainly subjective, one can easily see that Himizu is a film that extends far outside the realm of simply being a film about a disgruntled teenager. Under all the pain, anger, and misery that the film presents lies a narrative that hinges upon the hopes of the future, offering an eccentric portrait into the lives of individuals who have lost everything but continue on. With fantastic performances by all those involved—especially that of Sometani and Nikaido—Himizu is a film that doesn’t feel overly sentimental but rather one that courageously tackles the issue of young adults growing up amidst disastrous circumstances, once again showing Sono’s growth as one of Japan’s most diverse and distinct contemporary directors—with Himizu being one of his finest films yet.

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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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