High schools are mercilessly hierarchical societies. At mine in rural Pennsylvania varsity basketball players occupied the summit. (Football players didn’t because we didn’t have a football team.) For a mere honor student to absent-mindedly sit in the “reserved” seat of one of these titans in the lunch room was to invite an unceremonious dump to the floor by its smirking 6’5″ possessor. Resistance was futile.
The same is true, in spades, in the high school of Daihachi Yoshida’s engagingly off-kilter, if finally poignant, “Kirishima, Bukatsu Yamerutteyo (The Kirishima Thing).” Based on a novel author Ryo Asai wrote while still a student at Waseda University, the film begins with the sudden, unexplained decision of a star volleyball player, Kirishima, to quit the team.
Here is where things get interesting — and murky. We don’t learn of this decision from Kirishima himself: He has vanished from the face of the Earth. Instead we get the news from his flummoxed classmates, in multiple revelation scenes that capture this crucial moment from various perspectives.
Among the hardest hit are Kirishima’s best pal Hiroki Kikuchi (Masahiro Higashide), who is angered at being left out of the loop, and Kirishima’s gorgeous, cool-as-ice girlfriend Risa (Mizuki Yamamoto), who takes his resignation as a personal affront.
The waves of Kirishima’s disappearance pass beyond the outraged volleyball team captain and the luckless second-stringer who has to take the star’s place to classmates whose connections to Kirishima range from the indirect to the nonexistent, including Aya (Suzuka Ohgo), a hyper-sincere brass-band member with a hopeless crush on Hiroki; Maeda (Ryunosuke Kamiki), the nerdy, nervous president of the film club and director-in-embryo; and Kasumi (Ai Hashimoto), a pretty, sensitive badminton team player who is a friend of Risa’s and a former junior high classmate of Maeda’s. Kasumi bridges the status gap between the highest of the high and the lowest of the low.
Fans of Yoshida’s previous work, beginning with the manga-esque black comedy “Funuke domo, Kanashimi no Ai wo Misero (Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers!)” that was his international breakout in 2007, may find the more naturalistic acting and mostly serious tone of “Kirishima” surprising, though the one-thing-building-on-another story line will be familiar, as will Yoshida’s skill at drawing complex portraits from seemingly generic characters.
After the bravura opening, which promises tension, suspense and big plot reveals, the film gently, firmly upends expectations. The giant hole left by Kirishima’s absence continues to echo, but the focus passes to the kids dealing with it, and how it impacts not only their relationships and status, but their view of what — and who — really matters. Hint: It’s not necessarily Kirishima.
Yoshida, who also wrote the script, is in no hurry to tie up his various plot threads, which makes for a certain mid-film drift. Also, instead of clearly settling on a hero, he shuttles between the stories of Maeda, Hiroki, Aya and Kasumi to the end, though Hiroki and Kasumi are the more interesting, since they have more potential to change, despite having their elite passes punched. That is, they start to question the values of their in group — and see that there is a real world outside it.
“Kirishima” might be called a morality play in the guise of a coming-of-age drama, though what Yoshida admires is less conventional film-hero goodness than qualities such as self-awareness, open mindedness and stubborn persistence in the face of indifference, ridicule and the random interruptions that are a daily fact of high school (and, indeed, modern) life. In short, qualities that make for a good film director.
The characters are intended as audience mirrors, if not generic types, though I didn’t quite see myself in any of them. Maeda-like, I was a teenage movie nerd; Hiroki-like, I joined a sports team and dated a cheerleader (who dumped me for a better cross-country runner).
But I did see the dilemmas of adolescence brought into sharp focus through the hungry eye of a film-crazy kid with his first 8-mm camera and the perspective of his adult self, who knows that even the most momentous of high school days will have an end — and no sequel.