iSugio

River – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Hikari lost her boyfriend after a random killing that took place in Akihabara. Afterwards, Hikari feels a great sense of loss and shuts herself off from the world. She doesn’t leave her home. Finally, with the help of those around her, Hikari is able to regain stability in her life bit by bit. She then goes to Akihabara and roams around. Meeting people there, who are going through their own difficult situations, Hikari is able to slowly begin moving her life in a positive direction.

Opening with a fifteen-minute single-shot sequence showing the film’s protagonist Hikari as she wanders aimlessly through the crowded streets of Akihabara, it’s a scene that certainly reflects the premise of the film itself. Centered on two devastating events within Japan—the 2008 Akihabara massacre, in which a man hit a crowd of people with a rented truck and then exited the vehicle in order to stab twelve other individuals, and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami—the film explores how people affected by such tragic events deal with their pain, and in many ways, attempt to reconcile their emotional despondency. One can see that the film can also be viewed as an outlet in which to explore the national search for meaning surrounding both the massacre and earthquake and tsunami, two difficult events that at times defy explanation.

Prolific Japanese film director Ryuichi Hiroki is the man behind the camera here, with him co-writing the screenplay with Nami Yoshikawa. He films River akin to a documentary, with numerous prolonged scenes showing the interaction of the characters as they walk about the interiors and exteriors of Akihabara, and in later scenes, the destructive aftermath of the tsunami-hit regions of Japan. The filming style is definitely within the area of handheld shooting, with Hiroki in many scenes distancing himself from the characters or providing extremely close up shots of them. It is also somewhat humorous to see the local populace, who often pass by and look directly into the camera, giving odd looks and finger pointing. One may think that this may detract from the viewing experience, but in a strange way makes the film appear as if it is a documentary, which lends to the realism that the film conveys knowingly or not. Hiroki holds onto certain scenes for a very, very long time as well, which may bore some viewers, but one can also see the emphasis of focusing on the individual amidst a bustling city that is always occupied, moving, and uninterrupted.

But the style of the film complements the material it addresses, with the focus on real events as the film’s backdrop. River is much more a character study than a simple tale of easily getting over tragic experiences. We view Hikari as young woman attempting to understand the needless death of her boyfriend, with her completely shutting down emotionally and removing herself from the real world. Her journey to Akihabara in order to make sense of her boyfriend’s death is one filled of aimless searching, questioning the nature of his death, her exclusion from reality, and even life itself. She runs into a plethora of diverse individuals along the way in Akihabara, each who help and show her that life is difficult and sometimes incomprehensible, but it is still worth living despite such hardships. This is most prominently viewed in a powerful scene that takes place between Hikari, a street dweller named Yuji, and a street mirror that really reflects upon the notion—literally and figuratively—of facing reality. What is reality, and if so, are we running away from it?

Issues such as identity and facing the past are what make River a compelling viewing experience despite its lengthy presentation. Actress Misako Renbutsu gives a heartfelt performance that effectively conveys the behavior of a character facing such emotional difficulties, showing a need for understanding. One can see that with the film being one within the context of real life events such as the Akihabara massacre and the Tohuko earthquake and tsunami, it establishes a sense of sincerity that viewers can sympathize to in some fashion on a universal level. The post-traumatic nature of experiencing such tragedy first-hand—or in the case of the film, through a deceased loved one—makes it all the more authentic regarding its premise. We have all experienced or know someone who has lost people they care about due to a tragic event, which makes characters such as Hikari all the more appealing and appreciable as a individual given her motives to visit Akihabara. With this in mind, Ryuichi Hiroki’s River is a quiet, reflective piece on how facing tragedy can, in many ways, make us better define who we really are.

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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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