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Even after years of etiquette posters and tutting on social media, there’s still a significant chunk of the population in Japan who’d rather risk censure than give up their seat on a busy train. For high school dropout Karin (Karin Ono), the protagonist of Izuru Kumasaka’s “Pretenders,” this simple act of kindness proves dangerously inspirational.

“Maybe he was a metaphor for the world,” she gushes to her best friend, Fuko (Ai Mikami), after offering her seat to a needy passenger while heading to Tokyo’s Shibuya shopping district. And the world, as any headstrong 17-year-old knows, could always use a bit of improvement.

Drunk on altruism, the pair start creating opportunities for others to experience the joys of doing good. Calling themselves the Pretenders, they embark on a campaign of candid camera-style stunts for a noble cause. Karin poses as a blind woman and lets people help her cross the street; Fuko fakes a medical emergency, then waits for the good Samaritans to descend.

Pretenders
Rating
Run Time 117 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

It doesn’t take long for the pair to discover that many onlookers would rather shoot video than lend a hand, or for Karin to forget her high-minded talk about changing the world. When a clip of their antics goes viral, she succumbs to the allure of online attention.

One moment she’s getting excited about receiving 21 retweets, the next she’s posting racially inflammatory videos while sleeping rough in a public toilet. As you do.

“Pretenders” was the closing film at this year’s Pia Film Festival, an indie institution that gave Kumasaka his start in the mid-2000s. The director seems to be going back to his roots here, and the movie has the kind of scrappy energy you’d expect from a debut filmmaker, rather than an established pro.

Much of it was shot guerrilla-style around Shibuya — still bustling in spite of the pandemic — and there are a few sequences that look suspiciously like they were taken with an iPhone.

The story is just as ragged. After starting out as a wry observation on social graces (and media), “Pretenders” begins to resemble a drunken brainstorming session, saying everything and nothing all at once.

Kumasaka’s script touches repeatedly on some interesting themes — peer pressure, bystander apathy, Japan-South Korea relations — so it’s a shame he keeps returning to the rather less urgent topic of whether it’s acceptable to dupe people for the greater good. In Karin’s case, a little japery may at least allow her to repair some of the damage she’s done.

Ono’s strident, clattering performance sets the tone for the film as a whole. She’s a character so pungent, you’re either going to love her or hate her.

Karin’s desperate, self-debasing response to a journalist threatening to expose her deception is a particular highlight. So too is her emotional meltdown on the corner of Shibuya’s scramble crossing. It’s a scene so raw, you almost want to look away — or follow the example of the people sitting nearby, and bury your head in your phone.

She’s a hot mess. So is the film. There aren’t many movies getting made in Japan at the moment that are as irritating as “Pretenders,” but it’s weirdly compelling, too. Kumasaka seems to realize that if you keep throwing enough doo-doo at the wall, some of it actually sticks.

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