Press screenings here are usually cut-and-dry affairs, with the sole sales pitch being a PR staffer reciting the film’s opening date and running time before the show begins. The one I attended for “Yurusenai, Aitai (Again),” the feature debut by award-winning shorts director Junichi Kanai, was blazingly different, however.
After the credits rolled for this drama about a teenage romance that ends in date rape, 18-year-old star Aoi Yoshikura stepped before the blank screen and thanked us politely for coming, but as she talked about the film and her character, tears began streaming down her face (they were already trickling down mine) and she found it hard to continue. Actors often describe how they identify with a character: Yoshikura felt immensely sorry for hers — a girl whose dream of pure love turns into a nightmare.
That sincerity and transparency make her performance as the abused heroine more than an impersonation: It’s a becoming. And this, I should add, is a thought that came to me well into the film — and before Yoshikura made her surprise appearance at the screening.
Based on Kanai’s original script, developed from actual cases, “Again” begins like a standard-issue seishun eiga (“youth movie”). The star runner on her high school track club, Hatsumi (Yoshikura) is no stuck-up diva. Instead she is best friends with her vivacious teammate Mari (Yuko Araki) and seems normal and content enough — until she walks in the door of the spacious, empty-looking house she shares with her lawyer mother (Mayumi Asaka). Since her father’s untimely death and her recent move to a new neighborhood, Hatsumi has felt lonely — and been at loggerheads with her over-protective if well-meaning mom.
Then she meets Ryutaro (Yuya Yagira), a guy about her age who has dropped out of school and is working at a recycling plant. Charismatic and darkly good looking, if a bit impulsive and wild, this working-class hero is irresistible to the sheltered, rebellious Hatsumi, though she knows her mother would have a fit if she found out they were dating.
Hatsumi, however, has no intention of telling her mom anything. Instead, she and Ryutaro enjoy stolen, golden moments at the game center and park running track, where she easily and gleefully beats him in a foot race.
Then this idyll suddenly goes violently and traumatically wrong — and Hatsumi has no choice but to tell the truth to her mother and the police. Ryutaro is arrested for rape and brought before a family-court judge, who notes his remorse and tells him to go forth and sin no more. Hatsumi’s mother seethes at this leniency. Is there no justice in this world?
But justice in the form of a lengthy jail sentence for Ryutaro is not what Hatsumi herself wants. Her feelings, as indicated in the Japanese title, are complicated: She can’t forgive him (yurusenai), while wanting to see him again (aitai).
The current Japanese justice system, as Kanai explains in a program interview, does not presently allow such meetings, though abroad it is now common to bring together juvenile offenders and their victims to facilitate the reform of the former, the healing of the latter. So the film’s story of how Hatsumi and Ryutaro finally come to face each other is something of a “what if” speculation.
At the same time, the emotions of everyone involved, particularly Hatsumi, have the ring of lived truth. The words exchanged in the mother-daughter tiffs (“This will only hurt you!” “You never listen to me!”) may be overly familiar from other local family dramas, but they also have many real-world parallels. In fact, the entire story, as Kanai rightfully notes, has a lifelike simplicity. It concludes not with clever twists, but a tumultuous baring of hearts and souls whose final resolution is not a given.
As Hatsumi, newcomer Yoshikura is a natural in everything from her coltish grace to her character’s typical teenage stubbornness. There is an arc to her performance, but no visible calculation — a compliment to Kanai’s uncluttered, unobtrusive direction.
At the same time, Yagira does his best work since he won the best-actor prize at Cannes as the 14-year-old lead in Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2004 film “Dare mo Shiranai (Nobody Knows).” The coiled, watchful intensity of the child, we see, is still present in the man.
Some may find the film’s approach to the complex problem of sexual violence as too neat and upbeat. I saw it as wise to the inborn realism and optimism of the young, particularly one extraordinary young woman. And, yes, I’m also thinking of the one in the screening room.
Fun fact: Junichi Kanai’s most recent short film, “Tenkosei (Transferring),” won best director and best national short at the Sapporo International Short Film Festival and Market, as well as a special mention at Busan.