Where Are You? – Review
A sixteen-year-old boy, Ryo, experiences the painful ordeal of his mother being hospitalized and then dying. The boy turns to crime, but doesn’t find success. He then seeks out his remarried father, but the pain still exists.
Ryo is struggling. He is working at a convenient store while his mother is hospitalized with a serious illness. After he is fired for stealing, he carefully spends the remaining cash on convenient store meals, consuming them by candlelight. To say that he is just barely scraping by would be an exaggeration; he has no running water, no electricity, and no one to turn to. After his mother dies and the money begins to run out, he heads to Tokyo to find the father who abandoned him.
If you are looking for a payoff, whether it is tragic or uplifting, Wakaranai is not the film for you. This story is not a journey, but is instead more like a journal of the path that ultimately leads to Ryo making the decision to find his father. The majority of the film follows him as he walks around town, going to the kombini, pondering over a bowl of instant noodles, heading home and eating a meal, refilling water bottles from a spigot on a neighboring house. Director Masahiro Kobayashi uses a handheld camera to capture Ryo’s struggle, putting a lot of emphasis on every-day activities. This is an excellent way of putting across the seriousness of his situation, as it shows how things have come to the point where these seemingly basic decisions have become important to his survival. The film begins slowly, but in time it picks up at a steady pace and pulls you in to Ryo’s downward spiral.
Wakaranai explores how society holds to following the rules at the expense of compassion, acting as a commentary on the state of modern Japan. For instance, when Ryo’s mother dies any grief he has is overshadowed by procedure and protocol. While hospital officials ask about payments and funeral managers ask about arrangements, the teenager sits shaking his head from side to side, as if he is trying to not lash out or explode, and no one asks how he will manage, not to mention pay the hefty bills that they hand him. It is the stranger’s reluctance to get involved, to take on any unwanted responsibility, that is juxtaposed with the sixteen year old’s predicament; he does not ask for help or even explain his situation, he instinctively assumes responsibility for both himself and his mother. There is little dialogue in the film, and when Ryo does interact with others, it is primarily in the interest of business: a store clerk engages with a customer, a nurse inquires about payment for services, the policeman interrogates. During these interactions, no one attempts to help Ryo, or to even inquire about his predicament. It is business as usual for everyone else.
A fantastic performance by Kobayashi’s own son, Yuto Kobayashi, should not go without mention. Much is interpreted through the use of body language, and Yuto Kobayashi does a stellar job of bringing this character to life. Ryo walks around with his head hung low, long hair obscuring his features, and arms dangling by his sides. He is awkward in an ordinary teenage way, but as the film progresses, and Ryo’s situation becomes direr, the hunching of his shoulders and the sway of his walk become more exaggerated, as if his physical and mental state is deteriorating beneath the pressure. There is a balance that has to be achieved when working within such heart-wrenching circumstances, as one could easily come off as pathetic, and Yuto Kobayashi manages to avoid coming off as pitiful or forlorn by doing an unbelievable job of making Ryo realistic and relatable in spite of the limitation of dialogue and action. In a desperate scene Ryo conducts his mother’s funeral on the seaside. With beauty, emotion, and silence, Kobayashi exposes the duality of Ryo as both the child and the adolescent, with strength and desperation. I found myself rooting for Ryo in spite of utterly hopeless circumstances. This excellent performance kept me on my toes during the dullest moments of Wakaranai. And for this reason, I highly recommend it.
Author: Danielle Sullivan
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