I am not quite sure how I missed this one, and I was a bit slow in picking it up for review over at EasternKicks. But their loss in your gain my faithful readers, so without further delay, let’s get down to it.
Misa (the gloriously named mimpi*ß) is an awkward young schoolgirl. Bullied for her chubby face, unflattering figure, and called Pooh because of her surname. He only has two friends, the fish in the school biology club (the only member… Misa) and her Budgerigar Chunta. Not only just she have to put up with the attentions of Bullies, but she suffers excruciating period pains. It comes as both a surprise and a delight to her when another bullied girl, Izumi (Izumi Okamura), strikes up a friendship. Izumi is a really pretty girl, and full of life. Although Misa is initially sceptical, the two become seriously close, sharing secrets and sweet moments, and even a little sexual discovery. However, Misa eventually find Izumi to be a little too “full on”, and any gentle pushing back on her part results in rather obsessive behaviour by Izumi. Things only get worse when the darker side of Izumi’s life begins to be exposed.
For the first half of this delightful film, you could be forgiven for thinking this was one of those sapphic tinged coming of age stories. Two young girls finding themselves solace in an unexpected friendship, that kind of thing. But the film is always constantly on edge, as we are fully aware that Izumi isn’t exactly playing with a full deck. Signals are there on display, whether it is little flashes to the past and future, or the background story of a missing school mate, all which combine to keep the viewer just a little on edge.
In the second half of the film, things are a little more tinged with violence and viewer discomfort. It doesn’t scale the heights of creepiness of say Takashi Miike’s “Audition”, partly because the low budget nature of the film means that much of the horror has to be suggested/told via exposition. But it says something when the most stomach churning moment of the unravelling is nothing more than a mistake over the contents of a packed lunch. It is what is suggested that has the power, not oodles of blood.
This is a low budget feature from first time director Ryohei Watanabe. Young he might be, but his TV Advertising background holds him in good stead, with the film being well shot, with the added advantage of the relatively brisk 90-something minute running time keeping the narrative focussed. He plies a few cinematic tricks along the way, but he wisely eschews too much directorial cleverness in preference to unravelling his story and getting the most out of his performers.
And what performances. Izumi Okamura is fabulous as the dark yet full of life Izumi. The real star though is the astonishing performance by mimpi*ß. She isn’t your classic beautiful young Japanese actress, but she brings something here that I couldn’t see being believable with a bigger name in the role. You sense her isolation, and understand when she seems incapable of action. It is a stunning performance, and worthy of watching the film for alone.
Luckily the film matches the skills of the performers. Watanabe manages to bring us a story about the bullied and the abused, and what happens when those victims form mechanisms to combat this ostracisation. Misa has taken the path of withdrawing from the world of fellow humans, Izumi takes a more proactive stance (although she takes it far too far).
The film isn’t perfect. I do think it maybe played its hand with regards to Izumi’s instability a little too early. The climatic scene I do wonder a little if it got maybe short shrift – it is all build up, with the final result only being told to us by a near catatonic survivor. The ending worked well for me, where the cycle of events is doomed to be repeated, but I could also support a view that maybe Misa could have deserved something a little more positive.
You could also take issue with Misa’s inactivity once things begin to unfold. She has the opportunity to unmask Izumi on several occasions, and to do the right thing with regards to another victim of Izumi’s machinations. However, that is in keeping with the character of our lead. She has no connection with her fellow humans, It is telling that her only moments of real emotion are to do with the fates of the small animals she surrounds herself with.
In short though. I adored the film. Utterly Japanese in some ways, I appreciated the performances and actually the restraint involved. One part touching, one part terrifying, this film comes Highly Recommended.