On Sion Sono’s HIMIZU

by jh

Since the website I used to post a bunch of stuff for went under, it’s about time I put up some of it here. Some of it will appear in slightly re-edited form.

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Sion Sono, over the last 5 or so years, has become a pretty big name in the contemporary Japanese film scene. The release of his epic 4-hour film, Love Exposure, brought him lots of fans, as it should’ve. Since then, he’s become extremely prolific, releasing one or two films every single year.

Himizu is an adaptation of a manga written by Minoru Furuya in 2001. It tells the story of a 14-year-old boy, Yuichi Sumida (Shota Sometani), who ends up being abandoned by both his father and his mother. Left to his own devices, he continues to run their boat rental shop. The story is set in the aftermath of the 3/11 disaster. Sono apparently was going to make a straight adaptation of the manga, but then later chose to adapt the story to reflect this new reality. It’s the best decision he could’ve made.

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The film is a raw, festering wound. It isn’t interested in subtlety, or nuance. It’s a film that bludgeons. It could exist no other way. Often, Himizu registers as a litany of punishments. First, Sumida’s dad shows up and beats the crap out of him. Then his mom leaves him and takes off with her boyfriend. Before long, the yakuza are looking for some owed money. The film does not allow, at any moment, for Sumida to feel any sort of internal peace. His world is in a constant state of chaos. Sono mirrors that chaos with his often ragged, hand-held camera, which plunges head first into the muck of every situation.

Part of the internal struggle of the Sumida character is that he deeply wishes to live a normal, ordinary life. But nothing that happens during the course of the film seems to allow for that possibility. Everyone around him seems on the edge of existence. Victims of the 3/11 disaster have set up small sheds on his family’s property, and although they seem to have become a sort of make-shift family, it isn’t one that will step in when Sumida is being beat up by his father. Only an older man, Yoruno (Tetsu Watanabe), seems to go the extra mile in trying to protect this boy (his little side story with a pickpocket is hilariously over the top, terrifying, and hopeful). But Sumida has no use for kindness and, for the most of the film, he goes about rejecting it and sinking further and further into complete despair.

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The beauty of Himizu lies in its complete awkwardness, its earnestness. It’s a shambolic, slapstick take on total suffering. The characters spend the entirety of the movie screaming and slapping each other, rolling about in the muck, trying to murder random people; it’s crazy. It’s a world where there is not just one, but two psycho-with-a-knife incidents. It’s a world where a mother makes a gallows so her daughter can kill herself. It’s a world that is conceived in complete emotional extremes. Whether the film works or not for you relies on the ability to buy into this exaggerated vision of existence. It’s a messy, imperfect work; but, as it’s young characters envision a happier future for themselves a in candle-lit dump, away from the world, it arrives at an emotional purity that is only able to happen because of the extremity of the approach. Sumida’s tears and eventual smile signal a message of hope that seemed impossible at the start.

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Released in 2001, Minoru Furuya’s Himizu marked a turning point for the author. In the 90’s, he had released works such as Ping Pong Club and was known for his comedic flare. Starting with Himizu and continuing with Ciguatera he began to explore darker themes in a more serious way.

Minoru Furuya’s Himizu differs from its adaptation in one significant manner. It lacks a social context. Sono situates his characters in post-3/11 Japan, and allows his observations and characters to stem from that environment. But Furuya’s Sumida – what forms him? Just like his film counterpart, he has a ton of bad things happen to him, but his rants and opinions, divorced from his socioeconomic situation, come off as adolescent posturing. Sumida’s point of view and character register more like seinen cliches, and less like a legitimate character. Furuya’s art and character design doesn’t help much, either. His designs are grotesque and exaggerated, and that lends the work an uneasy tension. Furuya’s self-seriousness is sabotaged, almost, by his unwillingness to play it straight. There’s always an awkward joke nudged in there, an unwelcome protrusion, that distracts. Ciguatera, his follow-up work, would find a better balance.

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