I did a post less than a year ago of the Top 5 movies of modern Japanese cinema. I had to edit that list to include this movie (I posted this post in 2013. A year later, in 2014, I edited that top 5 list). Here is a tight movie that seems to be a character study at first, but becomes something more than that in the end.
The Japanese title is a bit difficult to translate, but it would be more like “Kirishima quit the club, you know…”. You can see why they changed the title internationally. The premise of the movie is that Kirishima, a junior at a Japanese high school, has quit the school’s volleyball team. He was formerly the captain of the team, apparently. He doesn’t explain why he quits and he quits suddenly. It is merely one day before an important match, and the team is left trying to practice even more because of the loss of one of their best players.
Meanwhile, a somewhat big cast of main and supporting characters are not only left to figure out what is going on, but they start to realize more and more things about their lives and groups at school as a result of Kirishima’s decision. One of my favorite scenes simply involves one character probing a little further as to why a fellow student is doing what they are doing. It’s the very thought of asking, “Why?” that makes this scene dazzling. It’s something we all need to do a little bit more. We need to ask, “Why?” His friend even tries to stop him after asking that simple question, probably because the question is too forward to ask in Japanese culture, especially for two people who don’t know each other.
The movie sometimes takes a scene and looks at it in a different vantage point. This was a little bit of a surprise to me, but it allows us to see another perspective of what was going on as something else was happening in a previously seen scene. It is so interesting how seamless the movie integrates these scenes for the audience. There’s a scene in the teachers’ office where two students talk to a teacher about their idea for a new movie (they are in the filmmaking club). At first, we don’t see the beginning of that scene, but only a part of that scene. Later in the movie, we see the start of that conversation, but consequently, we don’t see that scene’s end. It doesn’t matter, since we as the audience have already seen it previously. Surprisingly, this stylistic choice is not as annoying as it sounds. For the most part, the characters drive the scenes, keeping them feeling interesting. If you were wondering what one character was doing while another character was doing something else, the movie lets you have that knowledge. It all carries itself well, and the movie does so in under 100 minutes. The credits begin rolling before the movie is even 1 hour and 40 minutes long. It’s pretty surprising how much is in this movie’s limited runtime; one can see why it won Best Editing at Japan’s Academy Awards this year (this movie also took home Best Picture).
There are people who say that they watched this movie and felt that “nothing happened” or that this is “just daily life”. They are not completely wrong, but it should be said that that is very much a part of this movie. This movie isn’t going for a huge dramatic setup for some overly sentimental scene at the end of the movie or something. The writing reflects daily life and doesn’t lie to the audience. We see the school clubs proceeding after Kirishima’s decision is made. By the way, it’s not like Kirishima’s choice affects every single student, either. There are a few characters who appear unaffected by Kirishima’s quitting and subsequent absence. The writer and director of the movie may disagree with me on that point. Perhaps he was trying to convey even the smallest changes among seemingly unrelated people that occurred because of Kirishima’s decision, but I’ll leave that for you to decide.
It’s difficult to say who this movie is about. But then, this movie isn’t really about a person. It’s about a thing. It’s about what Kirishima did. It’s about how his one action has a ripple effect on the students of the school. While we may not understand why Kirishima did what he did, there emerges one character by the end of the movie who probably does. This movie didn’t go for a huge payout of an ending. Frankly, I don’t know what they would have done if they wanted something more climactic. In my mind, this movie ends at just the right moment. There was a point about 90 minutes in where the movie may have ended, and I probably would have been satisfied. A main message, of sorts, is left with the audience. But the final eight minutes or so contain a few scenes that clarify the events that have taken place. It is here that we get what makes the movie golden. So, in some ways, we do get a huge payout. Just don’t expect it to be as obvious and over-the-top as some other movies make it. Essentially, don’t expect an orchestra to come sweeping in as characters have their final lines.
This movie finds its ground in unearthing things about Japanese culture. In the end, I think the movie is trying to say a few things. One of those is that “School is life.” While life doesn’t seem particularly difficult for some of these characters, it clearly is for others. And they’re all just trying to navigate ‘life’ in their own way. Another message is more of the implications of Kirishima. This is as well as it should be, considering that this is a movie about Kirishima. But since this movie is as complex as it is, I want to leave that message for the viewer to discover.
This movie is never boring and never slow. So although I know why some people watch this and feel that not much happened, I think they are missing the point. The premise of the movie is what happened-that Kirishima quit the volleyball club. It’s interesting that this has already occurred, even by the very first scene in the movie. How the students deal with the aftermath is basically what this movie is about. So much happens in the movie beyond Kirishima’s decision, and those events demand our attention.
This is absolutely the best Japanese movie filmed within the last 20 years that I’ve seen. Some films go for too much comedy and over-deliver when the tone of the movie ought to be more serious (think Always and Departures, though I would say Departures still found itself and came together well enough by the end of its running time). Other films have obvious setups with emotional payouts that feel fabricated, even though we find ourselves shedding a few tears. This movie finds an amazingly perfect balance of keeping a relatively serious tone with some humor and also avoids getting overly emotional. In one scene, it was amazing for me to feel the emotion of wanting to cry and feeling like I would, though I did not, or perhaps could not. It was weird because I know I am supposed to feel bad for that character in that scene. However, I couldn’t cry, and I realized why upon repeat viewings. This movie crafts its characters so well that characters have flaws that are so extremely difficult to describe. Nobody is perfect, but these characters are so real. Like life, many things are not cut and dry. We don’t always know who to root for. We don’t know if we can be mad or sad towards someone or something, even though we may begin to feel those emotions. It’s so rare for a movie to be able to put me through those kinds of situations, and this one does it.
I could probably continue expounding upon this movie much further, but I’ll stop here. This movie must be seen, though it will be hard for non-Japanese to get ahold of this movie at all, let alone with English subtitles. This movie, like “Life Back Then” may have only found its place in film festivals in North America, but here is hoping for an eventual DVD and Blu-Ray release someday.