One May Well Wonder What It Means
Turns out this film that did well in Venice last year is a lot more warped than even the trailer presented. The title refers to a mole in regional dialect. It means, one who does not see the sun. The main character is a boy who aspires to being like the mole, quiet and underground, unmolested and unconcerned with the way of world. If that doesn’t seem like a downer of a starting point, wait ’til you see the rest of this movie.
It’s available at the moment on Fetch TV if you have that subscription. otherwise you might have to trawl through some Asian DVD shops in Chinatown or wait until SBS shows this one. They will. It’s pretty different.
As usual, spoiler alerts apply.
What’s Good About It
Sometimes a film comes along with the emotion dial turned up to max. The characters in this film have huge emotional commitment in everything they do. There is no subtle deflection of the mind that cannot be put under the microscope and characters simply lash out with wild abandon in the wake of the Tsunami devastation of 2011. Two years on from the event we’re seeing films about the emotional impact the disaster had on people, and in many ways it is not as one would expect. The constant buzzing geiger counter in the ruins is more than spooky, it is like a semiotic bomb.
In this film, there are no pat answers, there are no easy solutions. There is a lot of human ugliness front and centre while it is difficult to understand if there ever is going to be a kind of moral centre to the film. It’s nothing like a Hollywood film in that sense and I imagine that is why it won its plaudits.
Also, there’s a lot of people slapping each other around. it’s a bit like ‘the Three Stooges’ but without the laughs.
What’s Bad About It
Some of the acting is cheesy; especially the young actors who are barely in command of their performance. There’s too much form without meaning. They make gestures and do things but all it does is seem like they don’t know what they’re doing. The older actors are equally stagey and peculiar. The gestalt is great but there are too many different styles and modes of acting to form a unified whole. Instead, it comes across as a cluster of acting ideas and performances.
I’m also not a fan of the ending where you’re led to believe one thing and then they turn it around the other way without a successful explanation. We’re meant to guess at the reasons for the transformation, but acting is so wild, you don’t know if any of it really amounts the action that happens.
What’s Interesting About it
You can watch a lot of movies and never come across a film as wildly played as this film. Some of the interactions are laughably big, while others are disturbingly big; but it’s always big. Even the quiet moments of contemplation are captured in menacingly tight closeups. Not only are the characters larger than life, they’re explosive angry figures. there is very little hierarchy of characters’ importance to the story, just a wide circle of cause and effect coming from violent and rude acts.
The characters in this film have no problem slapping each other around. The girlfriend slaps the main character around a bit, even in fun and games and he’s not too shy about returning the favour. They do it so often it really is like the Three Stooges although I doubt there’s any reference point to that kind of comedy act.
We live in very genteel times where we eschew physical and corporal punishment with children. It naturally follows that we think the children don’t do violence unto one another because they haven’t been ‘violentised’ and inured to violent acts. Casual sadism is everywhere in the world of children. This seems to be the backbone of the slapping in this film, where kids are just naturally intrusive of one another’s space.
Or it could simply be a business device to increase the general level of action. This wouldn’t be surprising given that the source text for this film is a manga. There’s a certain level of violence that is affirmed in manga fiction so it comes as no surprise to the reader that people slap each other around. it’s only when you see it as a live action film that you are taken aback by the rude frequency of the slaps.
The Tohoku Disaster As Symbol
For some years there have been screen stories about how Japanese society is crumbling or falling apart from the edges. It’s almost a cliche about Japanese films where the family is dysfunctional and the central action denounces the social structure. Every year there seems to be one of these films out at the Japanese Film festival, and they ave been building in ferocity for some time.
What’s interesting about this film is that the film shows the aftermath of the disintegration of the family, but ties it in with the image of the ruins after the disaster. The mass of crushed buildings and vehicles and junk serve as an objective correlative to the action we see on the screen. It works very well on an image level except I get the nagging feeling that it is a bit exploitative of the disaster. The crumbling family we see on the screen goes through some Freudian ructions out of the necessity of its characters. The disaster doesn’t really touch upon the character arc in any significant way.
The other characters surrounding the main character are all somehow marred by the disaster and have become dissociated urban homeless. It seems to be a kind of cheating to swap out one problem with the other and draw equivalences.
Schooling In Japan Sucks
I’ve said this elsewhere but schools in Japan are really terrible institutions. They average about 40 kids in a class and teachers run a line of discipline first teaching second. The worst teachers work in middle school where they wield inordinate amounts of power and tacitly support bullying structures of Japanese society, basically saying it’s the acceptable norm. year after year middle school students commit suicide or refuse to go to school and everybody wonders why. It’s quite pathetic given that a lot else is quite liberal in Japan. It might be the case that middle school is where the Japanese learn the double-think hypocrisy of what needs to be said and what needs to not be said.
With all that in mind, the most interesting part of the representation of society might be that the school never comes to check in on the two students who one day stop coming to school. There’s nary any interest on the part of the teacher closest to these kids, who in turn is busy inciting idealistic nonsense, which is quite a cutting critique of Japanese political discourse about hope and the future. If the future was so important and the kids are going to grow up to be the leaders of that future, why is the school so structurally disinterested in their welfare today?
This isn’t like the only film to cover this terrain, but in this instance I have to say the film goes a long way towards illuminating just what is wrong with the way people are educated in Japan. It’s not the war atrocities everybody wants them to teach but don’t, it’s the tacit approval of hierarchical bullying and an utter lack of interest in being any other way.
Freud Comes Knocking
The central action beat in the story that really pays off nicely is how the son comes to killing the father. It is setup so that the father comes around drunk to tell the son he wishes he had died as a young boy, how he hates the son, and wishes him dead. Which is to say it’s straight out of Freud; and so the slaying of the father fits right into the oedipal complex routine.
The only exception is that the son is not wanting to resolve his feelings for his mother and sublimate them; on the contrary, he probably wants to kill her too. The killing of the father is shot beautifully in one long shot that covers a great area in front of the camera. One imagines it would have taken all night to get that one right.
What’s really scary about this film is that at the heart of the issue is this horrible act for which we cannot help but feel great sympathy and understanding. And once we are there, we’re trapped with the boy in a society of hypocrisy and rampant corruption and criminality. There is no single act that can balance out the greater evil that is society. It is as if the Tohoku Disaster broke open a part of Japan, showing the inner workings; and none of it is all that pretty.