After March 2011, director Sion Sono volunteered in Fukushima to do his bit. This caused a considerable delay in the production of his latest project. Afterward volunteering he altered his script of Minoru Furuya’s manga to show the world what really happened that day. Following on from his ‘hate’ trilogy (Love Exposure, Cold Fish and Guilty of Romance), Sono is doing a trilogy of films informed by this tragedy, Himizu is the first movement in said series.
Shota Sometani is Sumida, a 15-year-old who is cursed with terrible parents; his Dad actively tells him to die, countless times, and his Mother doesn’t care one way or the other. Sumida just wants to live an easy life. Later, Sumida is abandoned by his mother forcing him to leave school to run the family business, leaving him to be harangued by his father for money and victimized by a local Yakuza. If it wasn’t for his support network of the few surrounding refugees living around his boat rental shack and his obsessive classmate Keiko (Fumi Nikaido), Sumida would consumed by the nihilism of this void.
Although the cast itself is full of great Japanese actors in DenDen, Ken Mitsuishi and Tetsu Watanabe, it’s the two leads in Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido that make Himizu. Sumida starts off as the archetypal moody teenager, with no real individuality to anything he does. It’s only as the film develops that his role grows into something grander incorporating rage and confusion into his act before the moving denouement. Much of his role is the manga model of screaming or monologuing for emotional impact. It is an unsophisticated method but Sometani gives it his all, which when done with such zeal it’s hard not to be impressed. Fumi Nikaido (Keiko) is his opposite number, and appears to be the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ at first. Likewise, she also grows to be the romantic interest, and vitally, the main person fighting to save Sumida’s soul.
Neither of the protagonists are complex characters, what they are is cyphers for how Japan is coping after the disaster. Sumida is the Japan consumed by anger and helplessness and Keiko is the hope for the future. As bleak as the film can be, hope wins though. Beyond that, these two actors are bound for greatness in Japanese cinema, effectively signifying the hope of the future in a much less emblematic way.
As one might expect for a film detailing the aftermath of a national catastrophe, Himizu is an intense watch. Although not in the same way you might expect. This is a deeply personal film which doesn’t pertain to make any observations about human nature or any other grandstanding. No. Himizu is about how the individual deals with the extremities life can offer, whether it is the tsunami or dealing with the consequences of a bad choice. Besides the simplicity, the other main problem is the exaggeration. Parents wanting their children dead, going as far as constructing gallows for their children, it’s heavy handed symbolism and impossibly silly in its exaggeration. Outside that, many people external to the main cast display tendencies for extreme violence, it’s a heightened vision of reality, yes, but one that is hard to fully embrace. Unchecked nihilism is often that way, so it is an issue far from exclusive to Sono’s work.
Sono has always had an aptitude for on-screen violence, it’s the framing in Himizu that is particularly worthy of note, characters are constantly hit, slapped and drop kicked. No actor gets away unscathed, it must have been a demanding shoot for the two young leads. The way it is framed is much less extreme than fans of Sono might be used to; there is no blood or grand set pieces besides the aerial photography of the films centerpiece. Instead of over stylisation, the violence here is real to echo the reality Himizu was informed by.
All of the violence is grounded in realism. That’s not what makes the violence or emotional high points interesting; it’s the framing, even if the execution quickly dwindles through repetition in the middle third. Whenever a scene reaches its dramatic peak the score follows suit with the bass thundering drowning everything else out, creating a uniquely oppressive atmosphere. An atmosphere that evokes the insanity of the disaster. This is a film of bleak themes and personal tragedy, but it’s also one that is darkly comic and imaginative. Clearly not for everyone, Sono shows through heightened reality that Japanese cinema still has the ability to shock, move and entertain. Just like its director, Himizu is a one-off eccentricity that wears its heart, loud and proud, on its sleeve.