Himizu quickly rushes to cement itself in our minds with a powerful opening portion, displaying the grim devastation of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March of last year. With a filmography that is littered with controversial gems like Suicide Circle and, more recently, Cold Fish, this is the sort of confronting work we should expect from director Shion Sono, but most interestingly, the manga upon which it is based predates the disaster by a full decade. Ingeniously imbuing the source material with a completely new context, Sono has crafted an uneven but worthwhile look at survival – both physical and spiritual – in light of grave circumstances.
There are no sound stages here, just the depressing reality of people sifting through the wreckage of their homes and indeed, their lives. This authentic footage is mixed into the drama unfolding between students Sumida (Shôta Sometani) and Keiko (Fumi Nikaidô), both who are neglected, even abused by their families, and find in each other an awkward, uneasy sense of comfort. This blossoming on-off romance brings some levity to a film in dire need of it; they’re both a little unhinged, and regard each other in a way that the convention of Hollywood simply would not dare touch.
It is less an intimate character study, though, than it is a sprawling concertina examining a country fraught with peril. People are desperate for money and to better themselves, some even resorting to pimping out their own loved ones to survive. Local gangsters, meanwhile, are hurriedly calling in their debts, causing trouble for Sumida, as his father owes the violent locals a hefty sum. Add to this an encounter with a nuke-loving Nazi among others, and you have a dark – though often darkly funny – trip to the abyss that in its best moments mirrors the work of David Lynch.
With its extremes of light and dark, tone could easily have been an issue, but the pic is so thoroughly deranged in its own stead that some schizophrenia does not seem unnatural. The key is balance; observe the leads’ relationships with their parents – Keiko’s family has a very playfully dark hatred of her, adorning some gallows they built for her with Christmas lights, while Sumida’s father has a more pure, serious-faced contempt for his son.
This balance tips somewhat by half-way, though, as the inevitably tragic ironies of the story’s trajectory unravel, and Sono unleashes a few disturbing Taxi Driver-esque moments. In the wake of the initial disaster, people have no sense of place, but does it invite a moral decline, or are people merely using that as an excuse for their debasement? That is Sumida’s struggle, and again and again, he is denied personal agency to resolve this.
Things plod along a little in act three, telling us what will happen several times before actually going through with it, but the climax is ultimately stirring despite the boisterous, repetitious bellowing of its final moments. If nothing else, a Hollywood romance this ain’t.
While the hysterical supporting actors can be a little much at times, they are fully in line with the quirky, larger-than-life sensibility that has characterised all of Sono’s work. Sometani’s performance is one to take note of, running the full measure of emotion and remaining just grounded enough despite its flirtation with madness. Sono’s latest is overlong and fidgety, but puts its post-Fukushima context to good use.
Himizu is in UK cinemas from today.