Directed by Sion Sono, who brought us Suicide Club (2001), and more recently Cold Fish (2010), Himizu is an urgent and topical film. Located in the midst of the devastation in the aftermath of the tsunami of 2011, the film shows a society that is not only physically destroyed but also socially falling to pieces. Fifteen-year-old Yuichi Sumida (Shôta Sometani) lives with his neglectful mother in a boat hire shop. His drunken father only lurches into view when he needs cash and curses Sumida, wishing him dead and reminding him about the time he saved Sumida from drowning, an act he bitterly regrets on account of the insurance he could have claimed. Sumida is also the object of a school girl crush on the part of the hyper Keiko (Fumi Nikaidô) - ‘Am I a stalker? Yes, I am’ - to whom he is (at best) indifferent. The boat house is also a gathering place for a disparate bunch of refugees who serve as a Greek chorus and attempt to help Sumida in his troubles even as he hopelessly pursues his wish to lead an ordinary, normal and boring life.
Tragedy overtakes him, however, and with his chances of normality gone forever, he teeters on the edge of madness, haunted by recurring dreams of apocalypse. Threatened also by the yakuza, who are pursuing his father’s gambling debts, Sumida considers suicide but wants to do something genuinely good that will redeem him before he dies.
Sono’s film is a deeply unsettling view of modern day Japan. It is a society in which the adults have an antagonistic, if not downright hostile, relationship to their offspring. Sumida’s parents are blandly negligent on one side and furiously hateful on the other, but this isn’t simply an isolated case. Keiko interrupts her mother and father, who are in the process of building her a gallows. ‘You’ll use it when we’ve finished,’ they tell her. School is an irrelevance that spouts new age platitudes about hope and individuality while having no real impact on the lives of the pupils. The only sympathetic adults in the piece are the refugees, but they themselves have had their lives reduced to vagabondage that in its precarious vulnerability is not that far from childhood.
Although originally based on a manga by Minoru Furuya, the script was changed at the last minute by Sono to incorporate the tsunami and the subsequent nuclear drama that was played out. Sono took his crew to one of the most devastated areas for some of the scenes. The film was premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2011, a mere six months after the tsunami had hit Japan. It treats the aftermath in a tangential manner, alluding rather than depicting. But the whole film is imbued with an out-of-joint surreality, a topsy-turvy universe in which the generations are pitched against each other. There is no sign of authority and every now and then an ominous growling roar is heard as if there is another earthquake on its way, waiting to happen on the margins of the frame. This is a much more serious film than the dark comedy of Cold Fish. Despite the freakishness of the plot, there is a mournful tone that the use of Mozart and Samuel Barber reinforces. This is a satirical and in some ways despairingly angry film. In its privileging of the point of view of the young, Himizu is reminiscent of The Tin Drum (Volker Schlöndorff, 1979). Hope, if it is to come at all, will be brought out by the young kids who play out their relationship in the worst possible conditions and yet have an independence and resilience that will allow them in some way to survive.