Teenager Yuichi (Shota Sometani) lives a troubled life. Left to run his family’s dilapidated boat rental shack practically single-handled by his drunken mother, with his absent abusive father only returning for money hand-outs to pay off his debts, his only company is a ragtag bunch made homeless in the wake of the tsunami and now living on a makeshift campsite opposite. That is until classmate Keiko (Fumi Kikaido) is inspired by a classroom outburst of his and develops an obsessive schoolgirl crush. As his home life spirals deeper and deeper into desperate circumstances, his neighbours and Keiko try and rescue Yuichi from his situation. But Yuichi is not one to give up on his own future and takes matters into his own hands.
Sono’s decision to set Himizu against the backdrop and context of a Japan still reeling from the 11th March disaster was a bold one (rewriting his own script, adapted from a manga, in response to the tragedy), but while it could have felt at odds with the narrative or, at worst, exploitative, here it successfully grounds the action in a degree of reality, and provides greater motivation for the characters. Yuichi finds himself in an unstable ever-fracturing existence, in both immediate and widespread contexts, on both an intimate and grand scale, while reminders of the devastation plague those affected.
However, that is not to say Himizu is two hours of abject misery, as it is frequently and surprisingly funny. The tonal shifts between tragedy and comedy suggest an unbalanced and uncomfortable watch, but somehow the film never capsizes from its constant rocking between the two. Certainly, the tsunami survivors are an eccentric group of oddballs (played broadly but with winning enthusiasm by Sono regulars) who go to some pretty extreme lengths to help Yuichi. And Keiko’s unwavering desire to improve his lot in the face of indifference at best provides much levity, even if she herself is not immune to her own family issues – though, to be honest, that’s one of the more peculiar borderline surreal tragicomic gags. Yet, for the most part, it is rarely unclear what is intentionally funny and what is intentionally dramatic, but nor is it ever signposted in either case.
Though what really holds the film together are its two remarkable leads. Winners of the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best New Actor at the Venice Film Festival in 2011, and deservedly so, Sometani and Kikaido really inhabit their characters, making you genuinely feel for their plight and hope they come out the other side intact. Sometani especially instils Yuichi with a fierce determination that would in lesser hands seem petulant or petty, nor does he resort to the mugging and overacting that often typifies performances in Japanese cinema. It’s an astonishing display of talent, worth seeing the film for on its own.
But with Himizu it also seems Sono has finally hit his stride. Gone is much of the bagginess and the half-formed ideas of previous work (see Suicide Club), yet his distinctive style, approach and sensibilities remain, just in a more digestible form than before. Love Exposure may still be his masterpiece thus far, but Himizu deserves to be his major breakthrough, signalling his arrival as a major talent on the international stage. With his follow-up Land of Hope, a more focused look at the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, debuting soon, here’s hoping Sono continues making original idiosyncratic work such as this for years to come.
Himizu is released in cinemas 1st June.