UK Release date: 1st June 2012
Director: Sion Sono
Starring: Shota Sometani, Fumi Nikaido, Tetsu Watanabe, Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Megumi Kagurazaka
Running time: 129 mins
Reviewer: Adam Wing
If you thought Sion Sono might fancy a change of pace after disturbing the world with the likes of Cold Fish and Guilty of Romance you’ve got it all wrong. Himizu starts life as a teen romance but soon descends into bitterness, violence and madness. Sono had just finished adapting the hugely popular manga ‘Himizu’ into a screenplay when the largest earthquake in recorded history struck the coast of Japan. He put the project on hold to help with the volunteer effort in Fukushima, and as a result, changed the setting of his story in order to show the world what happened.
Sumida (Shota Sometani) and his schoolmate Chazawa (Fumi Nikaido) are 15-year-old school kids living a dystopian existence. Sumida wants to live an ordinary life ‘quietly like a mole’, and Chazawa dreams of living with the man she loves, believing that they’ll protect each other from the world outside. Which would be fine if their useless parents didn’t keep getting in the way. Sumida’s father (Ken Mitsuishi) keeps coming round for a quick fix of cash - he’s an abusive drunk who beats on his son and wants him dead so that he can claim the insurance. Sumida’s mother isn’t much better; she runs away with another man and leaves her son to deal with the fallout.
Poetry enthusiast Chazawa has a crush on her reluctant soulmate but her family life is no better than his. Not only does Chazawa’s mum wish her the same fate as Sumida, she also takes great pleasure in building a homemade gallows so that Chazawa can hang herself when she’s ready. She even paints the structure in bright colours and decorates it with fairy lights. None the less, Chazawa is the infectious type, and she refuses to give up on Sumida’s quest for normality. Each time he annoys her she puts a ‘grudge’ rock in her pocket, insisting that she’ll throw them at him when her pocket is full. They bicker, they fight (regularly), but Chazawa remains by Sumida’s side, helping him rebuild the family boat-rental business.
Sumida and Chazawa are joined by an assortment of homeless locals, taken in by Sumida after the tsunami ripped their worlds apart. When his father goes one step too far, Sumida takes a course of action that could threaten his ‘ordinary’ existence. Life as they know it is changed forever, and Chazawa struggles to keep the world she craves from falling apart. Himizu is Sion Sono’s biggest box-office success to date, beating the big budget war film ‘My Way’ which opened on the same weekend. Sometani and Nikaido won the Marcello Mastroianni Award (the first Japanese actors to do so) at the 68th Venice Film Festival and the film has been picking up praise ever since. They are joined on this bleak yet beautiful journey by acting veterans Ken Mitsuishi (The Thin Red Line), Tetsu Watanabe (Memories of Matsuko) and DenDen (Cold Fish).
Sion Sono fans will be pleased to hear that he hasn’t changed his ways at all. Himizu could be accused of being drawn out, needlessly violent and a little too offbeat, but then again, so could most of his other films. Shota Sometani is a captivating lead, even if he’s not particularly likeable at first. His disrespect for Chazawa is harsh to say the least, and there are times when his own actions imitate those of his father, which doesn’t really give us a reason to bond with him. Sumida’s upbringing was one of misery and neglect though, so it’s easy to see why he wants to live an ordinary life. His relationship with the locals is more appealing, bringing out a softer side in his nature, with Yoruno’s loyalty proving particularly satisfying. Sometani portrays Sumida’s decline into madness expertly, and the final act is all the more rewarding for it.
Fumi Nikaido is an engaging presence from the outset – infectious, uplifting and ever so slightly annoying in a seemingly unflappable way. Her light-hearted temperament comes under threat as the film gains ground and Nikaido is up to the challenge, playing a big part in an emotional finale. Supporting players are a little less controlled, with the exception of Yoruno, who embarks on a quest of his own to raise funds for his demoralised friend. The competing factions don’t always gel, and a little less focus on domestic violence would have made for a leaner, punchier running time, but there are times when Himizu really strikes a chord with its audience.
Himizu is a difficult film to enjoy, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy of admiration. Sion Sono’s latest picture drowns in shades of blue, black and grey, but remains a captivating experience all the same. The score is striking, the experience is draining, and the repetitive beatings are at times hard to bear, but with two extraordinary performances and a deeply affecting finale, Himizu can be forgiven for the occasional lapse in concentration.