I had been waiting for a while to see this movie. I finally saw it last night. What do I think?
8 out of 10
I suppose eight of ten is a pretty good score. I can’t say that this movie met my expectations. Rather, it went a slightly different route than I thought. I’d like to first look at the movie from a technical aspect.
Acting: The acting is probably the best part of this movie. We’re getting restrained performances when it is needed and dramatic performances when it is needed. I was convinced of the main actor’s dysphemia (stammering, 吃音). And yet it’s not like every line he is stammering. It is only sometimes, but then again, I think that is how it works. While I have not been diagnosed myself, I feel like I am beginning to have this disorder, or I am at least becoming self-aware. We see the the main actor is aware as well, but it surprisingly doesn’t seem to bother him. Before I say too much, let’s get back to acting-more aspects of this come in the writing, or story, if you will.
The lead actress is a young, possibly abused woman who also convinces us of her hurt, although we don’t know what that is right away. Unlike the stereotypes that might precede these characters, I found that thanks to the excellent acting, the lines never felt forced nor the performances stale. These are rather normal people, except for the circumstances that occurred years before. Whatever it is was that brought them together (fate, I suppose), we are really convinced the entire movie.
Of course, this is to say nothing of the supporting cast. About a third of the movie involves high school students. While it’s hard to convince me that all of these kids are really in high school (and the main actor clearly isn’t, as he both plays the character in high school and present day), their mannerisms are also not stereotyped, and therefore the acting feels rather real.
Directing: A lot of the good acting can, of course, be attributed to the good directing. In one potentially terrifying scene at the high school, a student turns on a classmate with a weapon. When the teachers get ahold of the boy, he says something along the lines of “I was just joking, sorry…” If you read that line just now, you mat have an image of someone being defensive. The actor actually delivers the line rather calmly, which perhaps adds to the tension. Was he really joking? A few seconds ago, I was convinced he was really going to hurt his classmate. This is a trait of good acting, but the point here is that the director likely had a hand in ‘directing’ the actor to deliver it in such a way. Of course, this is also good writing.
To maintain a sense of restraint in the characters but also provide emotional experiences is not an easy task. The movie isn’t necessarily trying to shock us or thrill us, and the director seems to know what he is doing in this regard. Of course, some of the scenes involving the high school kids are disturbing, but it is not presented just to disturb. The movie is trying to show what happened to one of these people later in life.
Writing: The writing is overall very good, but of course there are things that I would have differently. I probably would change the ending. But there weren’t too many individual lines that I felt were ridiculous. This is kind of rare for Japanese cinema, which tends to stay safe with token characters and the like that may appeal to a general audience but overall diminishes a possibly good movie.
Editing: It’s hard to get a movie that is just over two hours perfect. There are definitely a few parts I would have cut down. But to be honest, this movie doesn’t really drag too much. There is enough going on here to keep us interested for the full two hours.
Music: The movie’s opening song of less than 80 seconds in length has got to be one of the best openings I have ever heard. The music stays relative normal other than that piece, though I will say a piece towards the middle of the movie is appropriately subtle and haunting, yet beautiful. I can’t say what scene it is for fear of spoiling something. Watch the movie to find out. Or read a little bit of the Cinematography section below.
Cinematography: I do have to fault the intentionally shaky camera and the occasional unnecessary closeup. Especially toward the beginning, there were a few scenes in particular that really didn’t need the shaky camera at all, and really felt thrown in. However, for the most part, the camerawork is very well done. Eventually, the cinematography becomes rather normal. There are a few scenes where the camera follows the characters for a slightly long period of time, and these scenes all turn out beautiful. I didn’t expect there to be any scenes in the mountains, but when the movie went there, the camerawork was perfect in capturing the moments of climbing a tall mountain and trying not to fall down.
Special Effects: It’s obvious that there is very little in this movie that required special effects. There are a few scenes that I won’t spoil that did a fantastic job of convincing us that ‘it’ was really happening. There really isn’t CG, per se, but I think it’s just a matter of good choreography combined with the inevitable camera tricks that actually, truly convince.
Story/Miscellaneous: How about the rest of the movie? I think I was expecting the movie to be more of a commentary on school bullying, which it basically is not. Bullying happens in this movie, but we don’t really find much of a solution to it within the movie. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Parents who feel up to showing their kids will be able to have a good conversation about what led up to the bullying and the incidents thereafter. That alone is an achievement, I think. By the way, the movie was rated PG-12 in Japan, which is not restricted, but kind of rare, to be honest. District 9 was deservedly rated R in America, but was only PG-12 in Japan. While the violence wasn’t pervasive, it was rather graphic in District 9. Not to get sidetracked, but this is to say that movies are definitely less restricted in Japan than in America (I’ll likely do another blog post on this in the near future).
The story is mainly about the young male protagonist (Kyohei) and a young female (Yuki) he meets at the same part-time job. There’s a lot to like about these characters-not because they are particularly interesting, but because we feel that they are deep human beings. They’ve been through a lot, and as the movie unfolds, we find out more and more about their pasts. More than Yuki, we learn about Kyohei, specifically through many flashback scenes of his high school life. They don’t feel like flashbacks as much as they feel like a parallel story running alongside the present day story. At first, I was turned off by this. I was thinking they should just do the 1/3 of the high school parts of the movie first. But actually, we would feel even more distant from the present day if they had done this. In retrospect, while it may frustrate some viewers to go back and forth (perhaps as much as ten times), it was better for this story.
In the end, we do feel like we know these characters deeply. There really is only so much one can do in a two-hour period. But the time constraint also prevents the characters from becoming too mundane in the end. It is just enough time to figure out a decent amount about these characters without getting unnecessarily over-emotional. We don’t necessarily know the “why” behind some of their feelings, but we, all the same, understand them. I think it is because they feel realistic enough to get into. This is the strongest point of the movie.
The bottom line is that this feels like a real movie. Yes, there are some flaws as mentioned above. But for Japanese cinema, it is rare to get a movie that doesn’t just feel by-the-book. There aren’t so many scenes that were just thrown in to say that they had that kind of scene. A movie that comes to mind like that is “Railways”. It was an okay movie that could have been a lot better if not for being almost utterly rudimentary in its nature. That movie wasn’t trying to be a movie about trains so much as a regular drama that happens to involve a main character who is a train driver.
You may have noticed a word I was using to describe most of the technical aspects. The word was “convince”. Basically, I was convinced by nearly every aspect. So why did I not give this movie a 9 or a 10? It’s nowhere near perfect; as one reviewer pointed out, a blatant tear-jerking plot device introduced at the end of the movie will irritate critical viewers. Overall, the very end does feel a tad forceful. The more and more I review movies, the more I am convinced that it is hard to end movies artistically well. So even if this movie has a ‘bad-ending’, it doesn’t ruin the rest of the experience. I was loving “No Country For Old Men” up until the ending. And you know what? I still loved it even after the underwhelming ending. I don’t let those ruin my movies. Hopefully the first 90% of the movie will make up for the ending here, as it did for me. As for scoring it any lower than 8, I think some of the elements listed in the Story/Miscellaneous section help to make my case for giving this movie an 8. As far as I am concerned, it’s well-deserved.