Himizu is a startlingly inventive film that contains an astonishing constellation of references. It is Heavenly Creatures mated with Krazy Kat, Taxi Driver getting rolled over into Earthquake, and Rebel without a Cause stalked by a manic pixie dream girl. For all the unruly diversity of its sources, the film ultimately adds up to a remarkably coherent whole that is as distinctive and original as it is powerfully moving. It is not at all a pastiche that produces a detached viewing experience heavy on irony, but rather delivers raw emotional punches leavened with quirky moments of humor. In fact, Himizu is the best film about a troubled, nihilistic young person that I have ever seen.
The disaster that overtook Japan on March 11 has conveyed to the world the image of a determined and resilient people stoically enduring hardship and picking themselves up to rebuild the devastated sections of the country just as the entire nation had been rebuilt after the Second World War. Certainly the adults in the film who have lost their homes convey cheerfulness and persistence in the aftermath of disaster, but not even the devastation of his town can wipe the blank, jaded look of indifference from the eyes of the protagonist, a fourteen year-old boy named Sumida. Sumida looks just as alienated as he most likely was before the earthquake and tsunami. He lives with his mother in a small house out of which they run a modest business renting out boats. Every now and then Sumida casts a rueful glance at a shack that is mostly submerged in water, which relays that their lives have become more constrained since the disaster.
The look on Sumida’s face is so blank and withdrawn that his teacher, who is given to making effusive speeches about the capacity of the Japanese people to bounce back from devastation, is provoked into singling him out in the classroom for being obstinate in his gloom and state of demoralization. One wants to believe the teacher’s words and to hope that he can raise the morale of the students and inspire them to get involved in the recovery of their country. Yet Sumida’s impassive expression communicates a more elusive and troubling truth: the teacher’s enthusiastic and hopeful words are not the words of his generation. As much as the greatest worry of any teacher and parent is whether his or her words are getting through, nevertheless any teacher and parent must eventually come around to realize that his or her words do not have real meaning for the young person. Ultimately, the young person must speak and hear his own words, and until that time comes, there is little that the older generation can do aside from doling out copious quantities of nagging advice.
The film takes Sumida’s perspective in portraying the well-meaning adults around him as ridiculous and mostly ineffectual. His own father is despicable and violent, telling Sumida openly that the boy should have drowned long ago, so that the alcoholic father could have collected the insurance money. His mother runs off with a truck driver, leaving a note saying that he is on his own. Sumida’s classmate Keiko, who is infatuated with him, offers him unconditional support, offering to quit school and work at his business for free, but Sumida rejects her offers and advances, often resorting to abusive behavior to drive her away. Sumida’s rough treatment of Keiko is somewhat mitigated not only by the far more brutal beatings he receives from his father and from the yakuza members to whom his father owes a vast sum of money, but also by Keiko’s sheer pluck. She is unhesitant about fighting back, and on each occasion Sumida angers her, she places a rock in her pocket, assuring him that once her pocket is full of these “grudge rocks,” she will throw all of them at him. Keiko plays Krazy to Sumida’s Ignatz, though Keiko is the one who collects the bricks. Keiko initially strikes the viewer as loopy and a little unhinged – she writes down Sumida’s sayings on papers that she pastes all over her bedroom walls, and she acts with childish enthusiasm in promoting the boat rental business, even though Sumida has refused her help. But Keiko emerges as the moral center of the film, whose quirkiness is merely the visible aspect of a commitment that is as discerning as it is unconditional. She recites repeatedly a poem by Villon, which, over time, reveals how Sumida and Keiko achieve self-understanding in the act of repeating the same lines about knowing the difference between those who labor and those who loaf, and those who are rosy-cheeked and those who are pale.
Sumida responds to the awfulness and desperation of his personal life by deciding to go out and kill people who are destructive to society. Because he feels that his own life is pointless, he reasons that he may as well provide a needed service that the normal law-abiding citizen will not perform. The scene in which he covers himself in mud, determined to go out and murder, is horrifyingly reminiscent of the scenes in Heavenly Creatures showing the imaginary kingdom dreamed up by the two girls. Sono shows a touch of subtle humor when the silhouette of the large knife Sumida carries in a shopping bag becomes visible as he passes under certain types of lighting. Sumida himself finds vigilantism to be rough going when, encountering a half-naked woman covered in bruises who drags a chain wrapped around her ankle, the woman implores him not to rescue her, because her injuries are the result of her own choice. But his spree is cut short when Sumida learns that one of the homeless adults living nearby has somehow found the money to pay off his father’s debt, in a subplot that is by turns hilarious and deeply disturbing. Even the yakuza boss who had beaten him brutally takes time out from his underworld activities to exhort Sumida to be conscious of the many choices he has as a young person.
Sumida is someone who does not want to act unless he first believes in what he is going to do. He is not only unsure about whether he wants a new life, but also about whether he is even capable of wanting it. It is thus fitting that things conclude on a road, with words that were once pointless and empty being given the equivalent of a moral CPR.