Film / Reviews

'Mugen Foundation': When adolescence becomes too much

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

The seishun eiga (youth film) is not exclusive to Japan — plenty of films from elsewhere deal with the joys and agonies of adolescence — but this popular genre has acquired certain only-in-Japan quirks.

For one thing, many seishun eiga directors are old enough to be the grandparents of their teenage characters. And their films are often exercises in nostalgia aimed more at the graying director’s generation than present-day kids.

Born in 1961, Akira Osaki is the latest veteran director to attempt the genre, but his film “Mugen Foundation” — meaning “Limitless Foundation” — is entirely of the moment, if not obviously trendy. Made with the cooperation of Moosic Lab, a company that scouts up-and-coming actors and musicians through an annual competition, the film features Sara Minami, winner of Moosic Lab’s 2018 best actress award, and singer-songwriter Cosame Nishiyama, recipient of its best musician prize the same year.

Mugen Foundation (Mugen Faundeshon)
Rating
Run Time 102 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens NOW SHOWING

More than just a new talent showcase, “Mugen Foundation” is an experiment in form, with Nishiyama’s music framing and commenting on the action, and Nishiyama herself playing a key role. This could have turned the film into a feature-length music video, but Osaki, whose credits include the 2015 autobiographical drama “Obon Brothers,” keeps the focus on his young characters.

The film is unconventional in another way: Osaki shot it without a script, instead using improvisations by his newbie cast that range from the rambling to the inspired. But there is also a structured story with a typical genre through-line: The heroine grows as a person while riding an emotional roller coaster.

That heroine is Mirai (Minami), a student in a rural high school who is painfully shy with her classmates but relaxed and bubbly with her easy-going mother (Reiko Kataoka). Mirai also nurses a secret ambition to be a fashion designer, filling pages in a big sketchbook with her colorful designs.

One day on her lonely way back from school, she hears someone singing in a cavernous recycling center. Picking her way through stacks of trash she finds a strange girl (Nishiyama) with piercing eyes strumming on a ukulele. Named Cosame, she is friendly and open but somehow mysterious.

Mirai finds another unexpected ally in Nanoka (Nanoka Hara), a popular, straight-talking girl who is a star in the school drama club. Taking a liking to Mirai and her drawings, Nanoka persuades her to design costumes for the club’s upcoming play. But while the others rehearse, Mirai sits alone feeling that she doesn’t belong.

Seeking a sympathetic ear, she heads for the recycling center. There, Cosame gives her kind words, hugs and a song.

This pattern repeats with each of Mirai’s club-related crises, though we also learn more about Cosame and her relationship with the club’s sensitive male coach (Goichi Mine) and follow Nanoka as she single-mindedly pursues her acting dreams, leaving confusion and resentment in her wake.

As Mirai and her clubmates open up to Cosame and each other, the ensuing floods of confessions, recriminations and tears are a bit much, though their raw emotions speak home truths. We see the teenage girl as she is, unmediated by standard ideas of “normal” or “proper” in the genre and the culture at large.

And the enigmatic Cosame — is she a real girl or something else? — is always there with a song, a one-woman Greek chorus with a strong, absolutely individual voice.

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