Himizu (2011)Nobody can touch his future.
Sumida (Shôta Sometani) is a disaffected young man, seemingly lacking the aspirations of his classmates. He does not want to do anything or be anyone; he wants only to live a quiet life, like a mole (the "himizu" of the title) – taking care of his family's ramshackle boat hire business and... nothing else. Only his treatment at the hands of his itinerant, abusive father seems to move him. Then there's Keiko (Fumi Nikaidô), a girl in Sumida's class at school. She adores him, and navigates her own existence by obsessing over even the most trite phrases and responses he gives, writing them down and papering her room with them. Keiko is nothing if not intense, but Sumida, as with all things, wears his indifference to her like a badge of honour. Sumida also has a band of ragtag admirers amongst the now-homeless people who live around the boat shack; people seem to want to help him, and to have much invested in him. He is unmoved.
Where things begin to change for Sumida is when a band of yakuza arrive to collect on a huge debt belonging to Sumida's father. The debt stands, and the men will find some way to get their money; it seems Sumida won't be permitted to just exist anymore, and as with any Shion Sono film this turn of events propels its protagonists into ever-straitened circumstances. How they deal with these changes forms the bedrock of the plot, but surprisingly there is more to Himizu than just hammering human beings into the mud, and there's even a grain of optimism tucked away here, although you have to wait for it.
And man, do you have to wait, and suffer, in the interim. Although this is a languid film, even in its frequent violence, it is nonetheless heavy going. Himizu provides a unique take on the chaos wreaked upon the survivors of the 2011 disaster – by focusing on two generations, the young and the old, and examining through them the psychological harm endured by those who made it out alive. The film as a whole is an examination of a country suffering post-traumatic stress. We see it in the sweeping panoramic shots of the tsunami damage, and in the flashbacks of characters walking, speechless, shocked, through these scenes of desolation, as comparable to their lives in the here and now, eking out an existence, living beneath tarpaulin, still with nothing.
This theme feeds into that Shion Sono staple, the breakdown of the family, which is certainly represented in Himizu – only here, from the point of view of people who no longer care about the bonds of family. Parents desert, or wish death upon their offspring, frequently urging them to suicide. Sumida and Keiko are both told by their respective parents that their births ruined their happiness. Shion pushes this to the extreme with what can only be referred to as a literal representation of gallows humour – but the point stands, the young generation is unwanted and lost. In this respect, Himizu is a deeply cruel film. The repeated use of the question "Who am I?" by characters throughout only underlines this sense of alienation and loss.
For all that, though, there are slivers of hope – unusual perhaps, considering Shion Sono's recent films. The chairman who lost everything sees in Sumida the promise of a future; even Sumida does, eventually, begin to see beyond his own existence, although he has to suffer and strike out to get there. Although the film stretches a little thin when it portrays immensely overblown emotion in many of its scenes, the young actors do a very good job. A lot is asked of them and they deliver – apart from anything else these are very physical roles, and each spends a lot of time being hit or kicked – or hitting and kicking each other, for that matter. There's nothing straightforward about the roles they are asked to play, either, and they vacillate from characters with whom you can empathise to deeply antagonistic. By the end of the film, though, I was completely invested in them, and I felt glad that Shion Sono had allowed a little light to creep in. They are also well-supported by Shion regulars like Tetsu Watanabe and Makiko Watanabe, and genre actors like the hard-working Ken Mitsuishi – the film is something of a who's who of Japanese genre actors, and the casting works well.
Set against the backdrop of an all too real disaster, Himizu is an artistic, atypical look at the effects of such a disaster upon a nation, using a microcosm to engage with the macrocosm. It is in equal measures disturbing and moving, but always intriguing. Oh, and any filmmaker who can make the poetry of Francois Villon a lynch-pin of his plot is A-OK with me...