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Winner of the best Japanese film prize at the 2018 Skip City International D-Cinema Festival in Saitama Prefecture, Natsuki Nakagawa’s first feature “She is Alone” has a polished, professional look — the contribution of veteran cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa — and a pared-down script by Nakagawa herself that skirts the edge of melodrama.

It is anchored by strong performances from its two young leads, Hiroto Kanai and Akari Fukunaga, playing childhood friends who become victim and victimizer. And the film hangs together emotionally, even when the characters’ words verge on the cryptic and their actions, on the incomprehensible.

The story, which involves a silent schoolgirl ghost haunting the proceedings, has a dream-like quality but a formally balanced structure, with two student-teacher love affairs mirroring each other down to identical rationales made by the male participants. One point of comparison is the work of frequent Ashizawa collaborator Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who mixes nightmarish and surreal elements into his more straightforward dramatic films.

She is Alone (Kanojo wa Hitori)
Rating
Run Time 60 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

A childhood trauma tortures high schooler Sumiko (Fukunaga), driving her to attempt suicide by jumping off a bridge. As the story begins, she has recovered but is seemingly about to try again, this time off the roof of her school, when she is stopped by a teacher, Ms. Hatano (the single-named Michie). Sumiko, however, brushes off her savior (“I’m not jumping,” she tells her brusquely). The reason for her disdain: She knows that Ms. Hatano is secretly dating Hideaki (Kanai), the aforementioned friend, who has grown into a young man every bit as intense and sensitive as Sumiko (and, in a casting coup, even resembles her facially).

Hideaki also has a girlfriend in the bubbly and oblivious Akane (Momoka Eibayashi), but soon dumps her by lying about being gay. Afterward, Akane tells Sumiko the ostensible cause of the break-up, meaning it will soon be public knowledge, given the workings of the high school gossip factory. Hideaki has an even bigger problem than fake news about his sexual orientation, however: Sumiko has taken compromising photos of him with Ms. Hatano and is trying to extort hush money from him. When he says he can’t pay her right away, she tells him to “go sell yourself.” He complies and hands over the cash, saying “I wish you had died.”

The normal movie expectation is that Hideaki will try to get payback, fatal or otherwise, against Sumiko, the scheming bad girl. Instead, she is the innocent wronged one, at least by her own account. Six years ago, when they were both children, Hideaki exposed an affair between her teacher father and his teenage student, Satoko (Yuri Nakamura), who subsequently ended her life — and now appears in a ghostly form to Sumiko and Hideaki. “You ruined everything,” Sumiko tells him, sincerely if unfairly.

The accusations and revelations come in rapid-fire procession, with little in the way of conventional story development. This is the rare Japanese film that could benefit from a longer running time than its bare-bones 60 minutes. Also, it does far more telling than showing, with Sumiko and Hideaki’s shared past explained rather than dramatized. But “She is Alone” carefully lays the groundwork for its climax, which resolves its paradoxes and inconsistencies in the simplest, truest of words: I loved you once, I hate you now — and I still love you.

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