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Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Goodbye youth, hello cruel world


Rating: * * * *
Director: Akihito Shiota
Running time: 92 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

The heroes of seishun eiga (youth films) used to be idealized types, usually played by the teen idols of the moment. In the 1960s, Sayuri Yoshinaga became the ultimate spunky, fresh-faced school girl for a generation -- and her career has lasted far longer than the rosy bloom on her cheeks.

News photo
Aoi Miyazaki in Akihito Shiota's "Gaichu"

Today, however, teens in Japanese films are more likely to seethe than sparkle, while battling to survive in dysfunctional families and schools -- and not only in a spiritual sense either. In Shunji Iwai's "Lily Chou Chou no Subete (All About Lily Chou Chou)," a girl leaps to her death after being forced into prostitution by her male classmates. In Tomoyuki Furumaya's "Mabudachi (Bad Company)," one of three junior high boys labeled as "human trash" by their monster of a homeroom teacher jumps off a bridge and drowns, convinced of his own worthlessness.

Depressing, perhaps, but hardly surprising. Far from sensationalizing, these directors and many of their colleagues are reflecting what we see everywhere, from the streets of Shibuya to our own homes. But some see more clearly than others, and among the clearest is Akihito Shiota, the director of "Gekko no Sasayaki (Moonlight Whispers)," "Doko Made mo Iko (Don't Look Back)" and now "Gaichu (Harmful Insect)." Unlike directors who project their own memories, agendas or egos onto their underage characters, Shiota films them without filters. George Orwell once wrote that good prose should be like a "pane of glass" -- Shiota must have been paying attention.

Which does not mean that he simply points the camera and shoots. Shiota isn't making news clips for CNN, but films that combine the stripped-down style of modern minimalism and the character-centered focus of traditional humanism. He unerringly finds whatever it is in his frame that makes his scene comes to life, be it the early-morning beauty of a waterfront canal or the hard glint of understanding in a young girl's eyes, while excluding everything that might distract. His images may be austere by today's standards -- no J-pop soundtrack, no music-video editing tricks -- but each shot is telling. Shiota is, at heart, a portraitist. If he were a war photographer, his best work would be a single face that sums up the horror.

In "Gaichu," that face belongs to Sachiko (Aoi Miyazaki), a seventh-grader whose young mother (played by 28-year-old former model Ryo) has attempted suicide and whose handsome sixth-grade teacher (Sei'chi Tanabe) was forced to quit after falling in love with her (whether he molested her or not is left unstated). These scandalous goings-on are common knowledge among her classmates, who regard her as a creature from another, sadder planet. Though they don't bully her in ways now standard in Japanese films, with strippings, beatings and other physical humiliations, the relentless gossip and ostracism finally drive her out of school, to the privacy of her room and the freedom of the streets.

There she meets Takao (Tetsu Sawaki), a carrot-haired boy who lives in an abandoned factory and survives by petty crime, and Tama (Koji Ishikawa), a mentally retarded man who can veer from childish frolics to fearsome rages, but is basically sweet-tempered and harmless. They form an unlikely trio, enjoying an idyll amid the ruins and back streets, interposed with the occasional scam.

One day Tama is hit by a van, whose driver was jabbering on his cell phone instead of looking at the road. He is uninjured, but the driver, fearful of losing his job, pays a wad of hush money to the only witness -- Takao, who set up the entire "accident." At first worried for Tama, Sachiko is delighted by the outcome. There are more ways to move in the world, she discovers, than along the ruts worn by straight society.

Even Mom seems to be recovering, as she rediscovers love in a smiling, pleasant man who tries his best to make friends with Sachiko. The girl is slow to respond, but after an old classmate, Natsuko (Yu Aoi), hunts her down, she makes a momentous decision -- to return to school. At first everything goes swimmingly; she joins the chorus as an accompanist and even attracts the attention of a boy who seems unfazed by her reputation. Natsuko, however, has her eye on him as well -- and when he chooses Sachiko, she is hurt.

This crack in Sachiko's happiness soon widens, as a series of calamities strike. Finally she finds herself on the road, hitchhiking to the nuclear power plant where her old teacher now works. She has been corresponding with him, pouring out her heart in letter after letter and, though his answers have been sporadic, she feels he is the only one left who knows and understands.

In summary, this may sound like twisted melodrama; a 13-year-old girl flees to the arms of her adult abuser. There is, however, an emotional logic to her choices that make them, if not ideal, at least comprehensible. As Sachiko, Miyazaki has the right look of innocence hardening into experience -- she is the girl who has seen too much and been loved too little. Though not the passive victim, she has been neglected and used by the adults around her, while Takao and Natsuko prove to be no substitute for the family she never had. Miyazaki registers each shock, betrayal and disappointment with clarity and simplicity.

Extraordinarily talented child actors can be a bit creepy to watch -- there is a magic at work that is not quite human (think Halley Joel Osment in "A.I."). Miyazaki, who also starred in Shinji Aoyama's "Eureka," has a way of extracting the right emotion, without making it look like a rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick. Her Sachiko is as real as it gets, which makes the crimes committed against her seem all the more loathsome. The true "harmful insects" in this film are not the kids, who are mainly decent sorts, but the adults, who are, intentionally or not, poisoning their young.

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