Violence, director Kinji Fukasaku once told me, is “a pillar of filmmaking.” But on-screen mayhem regarded as extreme in Fukasaku’s 1970s heyday (see his “Jingi Naki Tatakai [Battles Without Honor & Humanity]” series for examples) looks mild in ours.
The new meaning of extreme is being defined by Sion Sono in films such as 2010’s “Tsumetai Nettaigyo (Cold Fish),” with its abattoir of a finale; last year’s “Koi no Tsumi (Guilty of Romance),” with its bloody mix of Eros and Thanatos; and his new “Himizu,” whose teenage protagonist’s entire life, beginning with its most intimate relationships, is soaked in violence.
Screened in competition at last year’s Venice Film Festival, “Himizu” might, I hope, put a period to this phase of Sono’s varied career. The bashings, knifings and screams of anguish feel less like the pushing of new boundaries and more like the recycling of past tropes.
Also, the film’s familiar theme of family breakdown, with its accompanying cycle of intergenerational warfare, has taken on a different dimension since March 11, when thousands of families were ripped apart by forces larger than individual psychopathy.
Based on an eponymous manga by Minoru Furuya, the story would have felt dated and irrelevant if Sono had filmed it as originally planned, but after the disaster he wisely rewrote it.
The resulting film is still a hard sit for the squeamish — and I count myself among them — but it delivers a surprisingly cathartic (if not “uplifting”) ending. A lot of recent Japanese films promise hope while pushing familiar audience buttons; “Himizu” shows how hope can actually revive, despite the worst of insults to the psyche and spirit.
The time is not long after March 11; the place, Ibaraki Prefecture — between Tokyo and the tsunami-devastated Tohoku region. A 15-year-old boy, Yuichi Sumida (Shota Sometani), is drifting through his school days and desultorily helping his parents run their boat-rental business by a lake with a half-sunken shed in the center. (No one explains why it is there, but it serves as a symbol of the disaster’s enduring cost). Homeless folks camping near the boathouse — disaster victims all — listen as he coolly explains his plan for the future: more of the same.
Meanwhile, a girl in his class, Keiko Chazawa (Fumi Nikaido), has a mad crush on Yuichi, despite his indifference to her. She takes every opportunity to chat up this tight-lipped loner, while covering the walls of her room with his bon mots, including his vow to “probably rent boats all my life.”
So far, so typical seishun eiga (Japanese youth movie), in which scores of naive, pure-hearted teenaged girls have swooned over a similar number of hunky bad boys over the decades. But “Himizu” early on declares its difference in the persons of Yuichi’s alcoholic father (Ken Mitsuishi), who returns home only to beat him, and his slatternly mother (Makiko Watanabe), who soon departs forever with her middle-aged boyfriend.
Yuichi is also visited by loan sharks, led by the bald, grinning Kaneko (Denden), who ask him for his father’s whereabouts — and thrash him when he rages at them. This seemingly smooth-as-glass kid, we realize, is capable of dangerous, even deadly, acts.
Under repeated provocations, Yuichi unleashes his anger over and over, on everyone from his father to Keiko, until he finally steps over the line to murder. Now on the border of madness, he decides to cleanse the world of more of the unworthy. Painting himself for war, he picks up a big knife and boards the bus for town.
If this were all, “Himizu” would be another case study of a loner youth gone wrong, similar to Koji Wakamatsu’s unjustly overlooked 2004 film “17-sai no Fukai: Shonen wa Nani wo Mita ka (Cycling Chronicles: Landscapes the Boy Saw)” and its matricidal teenaged hero. Instead, Sumida receives help from not only the masochistically loyal Keiko, who has crazed, irresponsible parents of her own to contend with, but also an elderly disaster victim (Tetsu Watanabe) who can’t bear to see him add his future to the disaster’s vast pile of destroyed hopes and dreams.
As he tends to do in his darker projects, Sono tosses subtlety and restraint out the window in favor of over-the-top theatrics and action, with the music of Mozart and Chris Barber on the soundtrack adding ironic counterpoints. The overheated emotions and overamped screeching would have soon become unbearable if Sono hadn’t also carefully stylized everything from the acting to the art direction — a welcome (if thin) form of visual and mental insulation.
The two teen leads, Sometani and Nikaido, work well together, even when they are repetitiously pummeling each other. In contrast to the adult characters, who are mostly caricatures, they give us young souls who share the pain of parental betrayal — and a will to live that refuses to break. Both deservingly received the Marcello Mastroianni award for new actors at Venice.
Like a punk band kicking out the jams decades after its prime, Sono will probably keep pounding away as long as his fans ask for it (or tolerate it). But this chameleon of a filmmaker also has other masks, such as the comic one he wore so effectively in 2009’s “Ai no Mukidashi (Love Exposure),” his masterpiece to date. It’s time to take them out of storage.