Film / Reviews


From Akihabara's senseless killings to Tohoku's disasters

by Mark Schilling

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Hollywood rolled out multiplex-ready films focusing on the events of that tragic day. In the year since the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe in the Tohoku region, dozens of Japanese and foreign filmmakers have taken their cameras north, but not to make mass-audience epics — yet. Instead, they have been documenting or dramatizing the triple disaster and its aftermath in low-to-no- budget films, more from a sense of mission than the usual career/commercial considerations.

One is Ryuichi Hiroki, whose new film, “River,” was originally inspired by the random killings on June 7, 2008, by a disturbed man in Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics shopping district. After ramming a rented truck into a crowd and killing three, Tomohiro Kato fatally stabbed four more with a knife before being arrested by police. The incident generated worldwide headlines, as well as an outpouring of commentary on the alienated and despairing state of Japan’s marginalized youth.

After March 11, however, Hiroki decided to rewrite the script of “River” to reflect the newer tragedy, whose impact on the national psyche was even greater.

Director Ryuichi Hiroki
Run Time 89 minutes
Language Japanese

“River” is the sort of quiet, lyrical, slow-paced film that Hiroki’s producers on his more mainstream outings, such as the 2010 period drama “Raiou (The Lightning Tree),” no doubt regard as box-office poison. But Hiroki combines his two story lines into an organic whole that, with poetic insight but no pat answers, addresses such universal dilemmas as how to let go, how to forgive and how to find purpose when all seems futile and arbitrary.

He begins with a long traveling shot of his heroine, Hikari (Misako Renbutsu), exiting Akihabara Station and walking down the street with a pensive, lonely air that, together with her orange cloth coat, sets her apart from the bustling crowd around her. A photographer (Mami Nakamura) takes an interest in her and, while snapping away, teases out her story: Hikari’s boyfriend, Kenji, was one of the killer’s victims and, after a long period of depression and solitude, she began revisiting the site of his murder.

Over the course of the day, Hikari encounters a troubled young man (Tokio Emoto) who also has a connection to the killer, a friendly street musician (Michiko Aoki, also known as singer-songwriter Quinka, With a Yawn) whose song touches her heart and a dodgy middle-aged recruiter for a maid cafe (Tomorowo Taguchi) whose blandishments give her ego a lift. But a brief acquaintance with a jaded maid (Nahana) makes her realize that faking a cutesy-cute persona to extract money from gullible men is not for her.

Then she finally meets Yuji (Yukichi Kobayashi), a young drifter who may have known Kenji. But he becomes irritated by her obsession with the past. “This is reality,” he says pointing to a news program on TV about the recent disaster. But he is escaping from his own past — namely, his estranged parents living in a tsunami-devastated town.

Alternating between handheld camera shots that discreetly observe from a distance and closeups that capture his two leads at their most open and revealing, Hiroki creates a distinctive atmosphere at once objective and intimate. At the same time, he likes to push his actresses out of their comfort zones (see Shinobu Terajima in his 2003 masterpiece “Vaibureta [Vibrator]” for an example) and Renbutsu is no exception. At the film’s well-balanced beginning and end, Hiroki films her in long takes in which she expresses Hikari’s changing emotions in a subtle, natural flow rather than with bravura theatrics.

As is also often the case in Hiroki’s films, the male lead, Yuji, serves as a catalyst for the heroine, cracking open her shell and opening her to new possibilities. But this street-savvy down-and-outer is as lost and alone in his own way as Hikari is in hers. Kobayashi conveys Yuji’s mix of outer cool and inner pain with a feeling of transparency and ease.

“River” is aptly titled, since both Hikari and Yuji appear to be drifting like flotsam on the water, but both are also moving toward something vaster than their individual existences, as they free themselves from past resentments or regrets. What that something might be, Hiroki leaves for us to decide — with “Moon River” playing over the credit crawl. An unusual but appropriate choice — unless you’ve seen “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” too many times and can’t get Audrey Hepburn out of your head.