Film / Reviews

‘River’s Edge’: Strong characters make this teen drama more than just a nostalgia trip

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Teenagers in seishun eiga (youth movies) tend to be pure-hearted types meant to inspire sighs of nostalgia from older audiences. But anyone who looks back at those years honestly will recall attitudes and actions not so naive — and some not so easy to forgive.

The enduring popularity of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film “The Outsiders,” and the S.E. Hinton novel it was based on, has something to do with sensational subject matter (specifically, gang fights and violent death), but the true draw is a cast of teen characters who aren’t treated as “innocents.”

The same uncompromising approach is present in the writing of “River’s Edge,” a teen drama by Isao Yukisada that’s based on Kyoko Okazaki’s 1993-94 manga series of the same name. Though Yukisada’s film is set in the same time period as Okazaki’s manga, a nostalgic glow is nowhere to be found.

The film, which screens at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, instead focuses on sides of teenage life that never make it into the high school yearbook, but loom larger in the lives of the protagonists, sometimes life-threateningly so.

Yukisada, a veteran who has made unblinking dramas about the young something of a specialty (see 2010’s “Parade” as an example), has never hesitated to turn up the emotional and physical heat and “River’s Edge” is no exception. In fact, he could be accused of overdoing the agonies and underplaying the ecstasies of being 16 in Japan following the burst of the economic bubble.

That said, the characters are good and bad, self-centered and self-destructive, wised-up and clueless in combinations that feel real, if extreme. In the usual “coming-of-age” movie, the young protagonists learn lessons and grow as people. In “River’s Edge,” they have experiences that make impressions and leave wounds. Transcendence will have to wait for the sequel.

At the center of the film’s maelstrom is Haruna Wakakusa (Fumi Nikaido), who is both the friend of a bullied gay kid, Yamada (Ryo Yoshizawa), and the sort-of girlfriend of the bully, Kannonzaki (Shuhei Uesugi). When Haruna hears that the hot-tempered Kannonzaki has attacked the unresisting Yamada yet again, she gets up in his face. Still, she keeps hooking up with him, while maintaining a certain distance from everyone around her.

As a reward for Haruna’s loyalty, Yamada offers to show her his “secret”: a dead body in the weeds by the river. He also tells her he is gay, despite having what he describes as a “fake” relationship with the sweet, willfully blind Kanna Tajima (Aoi Morikawa).

Meanwhile, Kannonzaki is cheating on Haruna with her friend Rumi (Shiori Doi), who is willing do what Haruna won’t, including unprotected sex.

Finally there’s Kozue Yoshikawa (played by the single-named Sumire), a professional model since childhood who is the most worldly of the group. While taking a more than friendly interest in Haruna, Kozue has secrets of her own, starting with bulimia.

The convulsions and consequences that follow are not unexpected but have the ring of truth, supplemented by soul-baring “documentary” interviews with the principals, repeated shots of factories billowing smoke and the hidden corpse in the tall grass.

The message? As a former mill town teenager myself, it was clear enough: Get out while you can.