‘The Hungry Lion’: A nuanced account of the social media nightmare we all fear

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Teenagers take chances that, to the adults in their lives, are sheer idiocy (as I know first-hand from both sides of the teenager-adult divide). These days anything they do or say can also end up on social media, which can instantly turn an adolescent goof into a mass roasting by thousands of strangers. Short of taking away their smartphones, which would be like exiling them to Siberia, what can be done?

Takaomi Ogata’s “The Hungry Lion,” which premiered at the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival, does not answer that question with finger-pointing or hand-wringing. Rather, with cool restraint and precision, the film illustrates the process by which the internet destroys, celebrates and forgets a young life touched by scandal.

The entire story plays out in 74 on-screen minutes, with one scene fading starkly into the next — and not a single wasted second. No one comes off particularly well, including the heroine, for reasons best left unexplained. And no one deserves what happens to her.

The Hungry Lion (Ueta Lion)
Rating
Run Time 78 mins.
Language JAPANESE

She is Hitomi (Urara Matsubayashi), a pretty, popular high schooler with a handsome boyfriend, Hiroki (Atomu Mizuishi), as the film begins. Then a male teacher is arrested on an unspecified obscenity charge and a rumor circulates that Hitomi is the girl in the teacher’s online sex video. Her friends, beginning with her bestie, Moe (Sakiko Kato), support her, as does Hiroki, initially.

But sooner than you can say “meme,” the tide shifts. Her younger sister, Asuka (Miku Uehara), complains that her classmates are teasing her about the now-viral video. Hiroki’s rowdy pals make lewd remarks to her face. And her friends find excuses not to walk home with her.

Then, like a dam breaking, the vicious mockery escalates on social media, as does the bullying at school. Getting little understanding from her distracted single mom (Mariko Tsutsui), not to mention the now-unresponsive Hiroki, Hiromi feels isolated and abandoned.

Then suddenly she is gone — and the film widens from its exclusive focus on her personal drama. The media descend like locusts, while teachers who only wanted her out of sight solemnly intone hollow pieties. Strangers laugh about her in the streets, though others leap to her defense. The story plays out, in other words, like hundreds of others that ignite the internet for a day or week and then, like a sparkler, sputter and fade into oblivion.

But as distanced as its treatment of this familiar trajectory may be, the film is not cynical. It also does not overly explain; to the end Hitomi remains an enigma, her motives wrapped in silence. It is clear, though, that whatever her faults and missteps, she is cruelly victimized by her nightmare of shaming, all the more intense since she is without an adult’s resources, including a ticket out of town.

If “The Hungry Lion” were a documentary in fact and not just in style, we might expect talking-head experts to use Hitomi’s tragedy as an example of a pressing problem, to which they offer up some solutions. But Ogata, who based the film on his own original script, draws no lessons, moralistic or otherwise.

Instead he interestingly complicates his story beyond the “innocent victim versus evil SNS and mass media” binary. Yes, he wants us to feel pity — but also to understand the black unknown of the human heart.