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Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Based on the novel by author Gabrielle Zevin, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac tells the story of Naomi Sukuse, an ordinary high school student who goes to an international school in Tokyo, Japan. One day, she falls down a staircase and ends up losing her memory concerning the past 4 years. The only thing she can remember during that period is one boy kissing her, but can’t put her finger on the exact individual. Gradually she begins to search for her own identity, and even when her memory returns, she keeps on looking for her real self, and what she truly loves in life.

Joint productions have always been a hit-or-miss within the realm of cinema—especially between America and Japan. For one, production values involved in such ventures are considerably higher than most domestic features, but one of the major downsides to this is the conflicting presentation of what the film is attempting to convey—often resulting in a very disjointed experience for the audience. Crossing cultural barriers requires an insightful eye in catering to the various assigned cultures in some capacity, which is a daunting task for any film director to undertake. While cultural background is essential towards telling a compelling story, it also needs to be utilized in such a fashion as to not distract the audience, in turn effectively removing them from the viewing experience. With this in mind, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac is one film that has the presence of both considerable production values and talented actors, but is sadly stunted by its own construed narrative structuring and uneven pacing.

Firstly, those accustomed to the book might find the film adaptation rather startling for a variety of reasons. Most likely the primary one being that the film transfers the novel’s original setting from a high school to an international school located in Japan—including having the main protagonist being switched to that of Japanese ethnicity. A surprising switch for sure, but what this does is allow for some very awkward moments throughout the film when referencing interaction between the characters and dialogue. The juxtaposition between English and Japanese can be somewhat difficult to comprehend if one is not familiar with the language, and this doesn’t help when we have characters acting within a language they don’t necessarily fully grasp. Mannerisms and characteristics within language are necessary to produce some form of believability—you simply can’t rely on having actors speak the language and expecting it to sound authentic. For the most part, the characters within the film don’t accurately reflect these subtle attributes, especially on part of the Japanese cast. There are moments within the film where certain Japanese cast members speak English with an expression outside the realm of their domestic acting. This presents somewhat of a duality in portrayal of character—and ultimately seems rather forcefully done by the actors. While this certainly isn’t the fault of the Japanese cast, it’s somewhat distracting to view actors being challenged by dialogue yet having their English co-stars understanding them fully.

It also doesn’t help that the plot is entirely too contrived for its own good. While it does offer a tale of rediscovery of one’s own identity—which does work well here in many instances—the film attempts to facilitate so many elements in an attempt to tell a cohesive narrative. What we end up seeing is overly long and cliché sequences that do nothing to advance the story at a fashionable pace. Couple this with the fact that the story seems entirely too whimsical for the material it addresses, which for the record was pretty heavy handed within the novel. Gone are some of the elements that contributed towards strengthening the characters within the source material, instead choosing to showcase drastically inferior representations to their novel counterparts. We are shown sequences that borderline on being strangely humorous even when the material at hand should be taken with some seriousness—the film seemingly has a hard time distinguishing what direction it wants to go. Whether it’s dealing with drinking, sex, or love, the film delegates a large portion of its time towards showcasing nonsensical acts that go nowhere, ultimately leaving much to be desired.

For all its flaws though, the film presents a rather extravagant look into the high school lifestyle. This exaggerated focus might not have been the intention of the director, but it offers a rather fun look into the carefree atmosphere of the high school experience. While certainly not a realistic look into it—especially within the international school system—the film offers a surrealistic take on the entire premise. While this might turn off some viewers, it does provide some much needed energy to a rather humdrum experience. The film remains authentic in this regard, and it also promotes a stylized effort that saves the film from becoming entirely too asinine. Since this is a joint production, the film looks incredibly polished and the production values are certainly a highlight, which is one of the better contributions towards such collaborations. One could only wish more care would have been giving to the remainder of the film considering this.

Overall, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac remains a very conflicted film that really doesn’t know how to go about itself. One could prescribe the film as being an overly ambitious exercise in banality, but that might be taking it a little too far. Structurally, the film attempts to encompass entirely too many things for its own good, which is disheartening considering the significant casting at hand. If given considerable restructuring before its release, this could have made a fine example of joint venturing within cinema, but sadly it doesn’t make the grade. The uniqueness offered by moving the film to Japan helps the film but also hinders it as well considering the handling of language. While this might seem like a small thing, it definitely detracts from the authenticity of the film, a film that relies on portraying a convincing—if exaggerated—portrait of the high school experience. Still, for those who are fans of the original novel, you might find some solace within the film adaptation. For those unfamiliar with the source material, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac remains a diluted film in which, similar to the main protagonist Naomi, is having difficulty trying to find itself.

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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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