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Year: 2011
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Sono Sion
Screenplay: Sono Sion
Original Manga:
Furuya Minoru
Cinematography: Tanikawa Sohei
Cast: Sometani Shōta, Nikaidō Fumi, Watanabe Tetsu, Denden, Murakami Jun, Watanabe Makiko, Mitsuishi Ken, Fukikoshi Mitsuru, Kagurazaka Megumi, Kurosawa Asuka, Suwa Taro, Kubozuka Yosuke, Horibe Keisuke, Nishijima Takahiro
Runtime: 129 min
Trailer: on YouTube
Official Website: Himizu (in Japanese)

Seen at the film’s European premiere at the Terracotta Far East Film Festival in London. Himizu screens on the British Isles from June 1st. See for details below.

Note: Manga images included read right to left

When Furuya Minora first published ヒミズ (Himizu) in 2001, many fans were bitterly disappointed. Up until then Furuya had established his name as a comedy manga artist, starting with 行け!稲中卓球部 (Ike! Inachū takkyū-bu/Ping-Pong Club, original run from 1993-1996) which was so successful that it “set the standard for comedy manga” (wikipedia). Ike! Inachū takkyū-bu was followed by 僕といっしょ (Boku to Issho/Together with Me, 1998) and グリーンヒル (Gurīnhiru/ Green Hill, 2000), which both did reflect on difficulties of life in an increasingly capitalist society, but still packed this into comedic storylines. Then came Himizu.

Himizu was dark. There was no humour – none, not even black humour. It was just dark. Bleak. Pessimistic. Utterly devoid of hope.

The signs are there from the start, before the story – about 15-year old Sumida Yuichi – even begins:

The cover and first pages use a dark colour scheme, with black being predominant. On the cover itself, the dripping-blood script of Himizu signals horror genre. Although manga does not actually fall into this category, the choice betokens the violence and shedding of blood to come. Next, page 1 depicts an eerily-green slice of a face, a single, creepy, blue eye watching like a monster in the dark. The face is not quite human, indeed, my guess is that it is that nightmarish figment of Sumida’s imagination that appears on a few occasions in the manga when the teen is in the ditch, emotionally speaking. Below this creature the words “Die” and “Every one die” are written in blood-red thought bubbles. The page that follows has no darkly symbolic images or bleak words, but the background remains black. Page 3, meanwhile, reveals another anthropomorphic but unreal and freakish creature, set against a psychedelic pattern. And then, page 4. The gloomily metaphorical title, “One Drop in the Big Sea” points to the main character’s self-perception: he is one, tiny, irrelevant being in a vast mass of people, living an utterly meaningless existence. Finally, we can also read a lot into Sumida’s picture on this page. Rendered in monochrome, which is the colour scheme for all the story panels (typical for manga but the absence of colour is doubly significant here), black blood is dripping down face and shirt. At first instance this is a teen that has sustained a serious physical injury and is bleeding profusely, but, with the red colour removed, it need not be blood. There is a person that is rotting away, decaying. An individual, a soul, turning black as he fights his inner demons.

If the plethora of visual clues is missed or readers hold out hope for some cheer and laughter despite it all, Himizu’s opening words will put a definite end to this:

In Japan, the precious lives of about 2500 people are lost on average each day due to various reasons such as illnesses and accidents…. Today, like any other day, 2500 out of 127,000,000 people will die. “Well, I’ll probably be okay.” “Well, it probably won’t be me.” People who are blessed with health would probably think so. Do you think the plane you board will fall? If you’re walking on the sidewalk, do you think a semi will crash into you? Do you think your house will catch on fire? Do you think you will come across a phantom killer? Do you think mushrooms will grow on on your lungs?

Thus begins the tale of Sumida Yuichi (played by Sometani Shōta in the film), who hears these words in the classroom, uttered by one of his teachers, and one can only wonder what sort of lesson is being taught here.

Fate has dealt Sumida a particularly dismal hand. He lives with his mother in a run-down container-box house by a small lake, operating a boat rental. The other parental half – a person Sumida refers to as “‘used to be’ my father, technically speaking” – only appears to demand money from his child to fuel his alcohol addiction. Unlike classmates, who aspire to become famous mangakas or earn heaps of money, Sumida wishes to have an average and ordinary existence, to live, quietly hidden away, “like a mole” (a himizu – hence the title). It is a dream that, given Sumida’s circumstances, was never certain to start with, but which falls apart entirely when his mother runs off with her lover. Left with only a letter and few yen notes, Sumida quits school and ekes out a living on his own while struggling with feelings of abandonment and loneliness.

Sono follows the storyline of Furuya’s manga closely, indeed, there is much that is straight out of pages of the comic. Sumida’s house and porch, for example, are clearly modelled on the mangaka’s drawings:

Smaller scenes that do not directly contribute to the overall plot but add their bit to Sumida’s characterisation are also faithfully preserved, from the tin barrel bathtub quest to the teen boy’s running habit:

But Sono doesn’t just follow the manga, he offers his own distinct and indeed rather sensitive reading of it. As is widely known, the director completely rewrote the script when the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake happened shortly before the filming for Himizu was due to begin, then setting Sumida’s story against the backdrop of the catastrophe. In Furuya’s original the exact time and geographical location were – beyond ‘contemporary Japan’ at least – unspecified, while Sono’s rewrite turned Himizu into a timely reflection on a major natural disaster and its repercussions on Japanese society, but still delivering a universal message. The magnified emotional impact of the change is undeniable. Opening shots of the film are not an artificially created film set, but real and accordingly chilling footage of ravaged human landscapes bearing signs of those who once lived there and lost everything – if they survived.

Several secondary characters become first-hand victims of the earthquake – and this is also where Sono makes another, considerable departure from the manga. The comic-Sumida is accompanied by several classmates and peers – Yoruno Shozo, Akada Kenichi, Akada’s cousin Kii, Chazawa Keiko -, while the film-Sumida is a loner at school as Yoruno et al., with the exception of Chazawa, are transformed into adult characters, some with different names and (partially) altered identities. These grown men have all been made homeless by the earthquake and live in make-shift homes near the Sumida boat rental. Yoruno (Watanabe Tetsu) is the only one that retains his name and a similar, but not identical personality. Originally a scrawny, snot-faced kid that snatches wallets with unusually nimble fingers, he becomes a beer-bellied loser of a man in late middle age who instead begs a petty thief (Kubozuka Yosuke) to teach him how to steal so that he may lighten Sumida’s financial troubles. Both the young and old Yoruno however think little before they act and are willing to go to extremes to help their friend, it is just that their motivations differ: though few details are provided, the teenage Yoruno, as well as all of Sumida’s other school friends, roam around uncontrolled, seemingly lacking any sort of parental supervision and care, and facing the prospect of a failed future. The grown-up Yoruno, his home, job and family all gone, is already living that life and no longer has any hope for himself, but does not want Sumida to end up like him. Whilst the story dynamics do change with the switch, both alternate versions work surprisingly well.

Running… with the world against you.

The other teen-to-adult characters of Himizu have less developed roles in the film storyline, acting as Sumida’s make-shift family in the background. The only exception to this is Chazawa (Nikaidō Fumi), whose part is raised to that of second lead. Though she already stands out in the manga as the only girl and is also there portrayed as crazy and obsessively in love with Sumida, her character is further intensified under Sono’s directing. Chazawa has a twisted definition of love that includes a significant amount of violence and is likely to put some viewers off. The added background story of her psycho parents – they are openly building a scaffold in the family home so that their daughter can commit suicide as per their wish – offers an explanation for her actions.* It is still disturbing to watch the teenagers hit each other relentlessly, but the continued aberration of their behaviour only reinforces that they simply have no sense of what is sane and normal, never having known any real love from their parents or anyone else. Both Sometani’s and Nikaidō’s acting is superb and their win of the Best New Young Actor and Actress awards at the 2011 Venice International Film Festival was more than deserved.

“First day of the rest of my life…”

This leaves us with Himizu’s ending. Having read only a little over half of the manga, I have no idea how Furuya finishes the story, although Sono himself hints at the original conclusion when talking about the post-Tōhoku changes he made in the film:

Every scene changed drastically. The original manga had no hope in it but after March 11, I didn’t think I should make a film with no hope. I felt that I had to convey it in the film. (Quote from Variety interview)

Sono’s Himizu too is dark and it would be misleading to call its ending “happy” or even promising happiness. There is merely a sliver of hope, a possibility of possibilities that maybe, just maybe, after walking down the long, hard road of recovery certain wounds will heal but still leave a scar behind. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, this conclusion is impressively honest and perhaps more painful than not, for we can never turn back time, recover lives and livelihoods lost exactly as they were, but it does not leave us with “no hope”.

*I have only read the manga up to ch. 22 (of 43), so there is a chance that her parents make an appearance later.

Overall verdict: Sono’s Himizu is a sensitive adaptation on Furuya Minora’s manga original that weaves the catastrophic real-life event of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake into the story on the downward spiral of a teen boy failed by his family into a candid, often disturbing and very much thought-provoking film, depicting the raw pain of devastation caused both within (by family and, more generally, society) and without (by nature).

Rating: 9/10

Bonus bits:

Image gallery: