Since 9/11 many of the biggest disasters to affect people worldwide have been followed by films about the rage and insanity to which these events drive average, decent people. Films such as The 25th Hour (9/11) and Bad Lieutenant (Hurricane Katrina) have attempted catharsis following such psychologically devastating events. Sion Sono, perhaps the most fascinating filmmaker to emerge from Japan in the last decade, has quickly crafted a troubled work of rage cinema about the aftermath of 2011’s Tohoku earthquake and tsunami; Himizu.
This is a film about trauma that attempts to gets its message across by traumatising its audience. Barely a character escapes without a violent strike to the face. Innocent bystanders are stabbed on public transport. An outrageous percentage of the dialogue is shouted, if not screamed. And yet for all its excess and drama, Himizu is never more haunting than when it shows seemingly endless swaths of debris and rubble, once the homes of ordinary Japanese men and women, levelled by the tsunami.
The film’s vessel for Japan’s anger is Sumida, a 14-year-old boy forced to miss school to run his family’s boat rental house following the earthquake. His father is a violent drunk, his mother desperate to escape and unwilling to factor her son into her plans. But despite this Sumida is a good kid; he is a kind friend to the down-and-outs he allows stay on his property, refugees of the disaster living in makeshift hovels by the boathouse, who think the world of Sumida.
But the horror he has witnessed and his father’s continuous attempts to cajole him to commit suicide wear Sumida down, and soon he alienates the friends he has sheltered and becomes excessively violent towards his classmate Chazawa, a girl helplessly besotted with the troubled boy.
The film soon descends into a series of ever worsening dilemmas – repayments to the mob, murder and stab-happy sociopathy. All the while Chazawa continues to support Sumida despite his insistence on taking his pain out on her face. I mentioned this film wants to traumatise you, right?
There are many things to recommend Himizu on. The acting is solid across the board, and for youths their age Shota Sometani (Sumida) and Fumi Nikaido (Chazawa) give powerful and committed performances. The classical soundtrack is well used and locations are brilliantly chosen; the dislodged shed slowly sinking in the lake behind the boathouse is a constant reminder that the destruction wrought by the tsunami has not gone away.
But the film suffers from Sono’s inability to settle on tone. For a film about rage and trauma, there’s a worrying amount of black comedy on display. Desperate to claim her life insurance, Chazawa’s parents design and decorate a gallows for her to use – the literal epitome of gallows humour. Later, a fantasised action sequence becomes an excuse for Sono to have a little fun, at the expense of the deep social commentary the film had otherwise focused on.
The director, whose 2008 film Love Exposure ran (reluctantly) a gruelling four hours, remains desperately in need of an editor, as Himizu feels every one of its 129 minutes.
While one can admire Sono’s desire to make this film and channel that rage and pain, that channel has become clogged with Sono’s wackiness, blocking the flow of what might otherwise have been a truly powerful, touching human drama.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)