Weird movies (and Sion Sono makes nothing but weird movies) can only be really successful story vehicles if they properly teach the audience how to watch them. Sharp tonal shifts and weird characterizations can work dramatically if the groundwork is laid. In many of his previous films (his most famous to American audiences is probably 2001’s Suicide Club) Sion Sono has not approached storytelling with much discipline. His style is less “everything but the kitchen sink” and more “3 or 4 kitchen sinks, from completely unrelated kitchens” and lots of screaming actors.
Himizu has numerous, strange plotlines. It has off the wall acting and sudden shifts in tone, broad comedy and lots of violence. But it integrates these disparate elements into a emotionally affecting coming of age story that is not only coherent (on its own, peculiar level) but touching.
The film begins with a long pan over a devastated area of post-Tsunami Japan. Some older men are walking through the wreckage, then we see a boy. He sees a washing machine, finds a gun inside, and puts it to his head. The sound of the gunshot cuts to the same boy, waking up. This blasted-heath and suicide dream moves directly into a scene where the boy, our protagonist Sumida, goes out for his evening run, and is directly joined by goofy squatters sleeping on his lawn. Depression and suicide move right into broad comedy, but it’s introduced well enough it isn’t jarring.
The title comes from the Japanese word for “mole”, which is what Sumida wishes he could be: underground, living his natural life, not bothering anybody. In class, he doesn’t have much appreciation for his teacher’s lectures about being unique, and fulfilling your dreams. “Being ordinary is best!” Sumida shouts in class.
Chazawa, an admirer (who calls herself his “stalker”) sit a couple of chairs away from him, and thinks his doctrine of ordinariness is intriguing. Her bedroom is covered, wall to wall, with sheets of paper containing Sumida’s rather banal pronouncements. Maybe Sumida is so attached to ordinariness because he has none of it at home. The action of the film takes place shortly after the 2011 tsunami that did such damage to the Japanese coast. Sumida and his mother (a drunken layabout) run a boat rental service, and Sumida’s only ambition is to continue to run it when he gets out of junior high. On their small plot of land, a number of aging squatters live in tarp tents. They form a kind of surrogate family around Sumida, though not a particularly inspiring or useful one: when Sumida’s father comes home for money, he beats Sumida severely for his “attitude” and then tells him, for the thousandth time, how he just wished his kid had drowned. After all, his parents had an insurance policy on him, and they could use the money.
Chazawa enters into this maelstrom of bad feelings and takes the brunt of Sumida’s wrath, including a lot of very uncomfortable violence. He hits and slaps her, and she barely reacts, until he won’t play some Haiku game she makes up right, and that finally gets her to storm off. Her resilience in the face of his indifference and violence doesn’t make sense until we see, in a couple of brief scenes, Chazawa’s own terrifying home life. In one room of her house there’s a special little gallows being built by her parents, in which Chazawa has apparently promised to kill herself when it’s completed.
What raises Himizu from the level of lurid melodrama (and there is plenty of lurid melodrama) is the theme of intergenerational disruption, all played out in Shota Sometani’s effective performance as Sumida. It’s is typical in many Japanese films to have a closed-off main character, one who never answers questions or expresses desires too directly. Sumida is closed off, but it never feels like an irritating pose, or a convenience for the screenwriter to not have to figure out any pesky motivations. Sumida wants normality in a world where there isn’t any normal. Adults are worse than useless, and when anyone tries to help Sumida the effects become more corrupting than salutary.
After a major event shifts Sumida’s entire self-perception, he spends much of the film wandering the streets of Tokyo, carrying a knife in a white bag, looking for some way to feel useful. And when he does come across situations where he thinks he can help, the perpetrators are all carrying or getting knives of their own, and all seem as helpless as Sumida. It’s an apt metaphor for Sumida’s internal plight – he wants to be normal, and the only normal he can graft onto has been adopted by other, clearly insane men.
Himizu is based on a manga released in the early years of the 21st century but with a screenplay heavily changed by the tsunami of 2011. Maybe having a source for the material allowed Sono to more readily pour his hyperenergetic direction into a coherent theme. Himizu is a rare expression of the difficulty of finding meaning in an apparently meaningless world that doesn’t fall to sentiment or easy answers. And, atypical for Sono, but encouraging, it also doesn’t give in to hopelessness.
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