Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

"Sumida, don't give up! Have a dream!"

Told this by his teacher in junior high school, the young pupil replies, "Ordinary is the best!" Indeed, when he is not having nightmares about shooting himself in the head, Sumida dreams only of dropping out before senior high, working at his parent's shabby boat rental shack for the rest of his days, and living "quietly like a himizu" – 'himizu' being the term for the shrew mole that is endemic in Japan.

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Yet even such modest ambitions seem well nigh impossible to attain for a mere 14-year-old who is regularly insulted, beaten and robbed by his estranged father (Ken Mitsuishi) – not to mention his father's yakuza creditor Kaneko (Denden) – and who has recently been abandoned altogether by his mother (Makiko Watanabe). For Sumida, 'ordinary' is almost a dream too far.

Despite receiving considerable emotional support both from his would-be girlfriend-cum-stalker Chazawa (Nikaidou Fumi) – herself a product of extreme domestic dysfunction - and from his homeless 'neighbours' including middle-aged one-time business executive Noruno Shozo (Watanabe Tetsu), Sumida does not know how to accept help, and so a personal crisis leads to a descent into murder and madness.

As Sumida struggles to find his way from doomed teen towards "respectable adult", writer/director Sono Sion transposes Furuya Minoru's homonymous manga (originally serialised in 2001-2) to Fukushima City shortly after the earthquake of 11th March 2011, so that Sumida's troubled rites of passage come ingeniously to reflect Japan's anxieties about her prospects in the wake of national disaster.

Nothing quite grounds a tale of adolescent angst like the spectacle of its young hero drifting lost through the all-too-real ruins of a tsunami-ravaged community, in search of both past and future. "Don't give up!" - the expression repeated as a mantra against Sumida's desperate circumstances, was also a refrain broadcast on Japanese radio and television to a country recently overwhelmed by tidal waves and reduced to a state of hopeless uncertainty.

Furuya's material is also made to bear all the hallmarks of a typical Sono Sion film. The score is dominated, as usual, by Western classical music – here chiefly Mozart's Requiem and Barber's Adagio for Strings, both (over)used as a lazy shorthand for tragic pathos. A poem is repeatedly recited and made the thematic centrepiece of the film, as in the recent Guilty Of Romance (2011), while actors Fukikoshi Mitsuru, Kagurazaka Megumi and Denden seem to be playing minor variants on their roles in Cold Fish (2010).

By now the themes of suicide, adolescence and the fallen innocent (in a fallen world) have become familiar preoccupations in Sono's oeuvre, and lengthy durations are similarly a Sono trademark - yet where the four hours of Love Exposure (2008) just flew by thanks to its sheer inventive exuberance, the two-and-a-bit hours of Himizu drag under the weight of a narrative that is unnecessarily repetitive.

The result is a coming-of-age, state-of-the-nation film which, though important in the post-tsunami context, nonetheless hardly feels like one of Sono's best. Like the mole that gives the film its title, Sumida is often seen covered in the mud and dirt of the blighted earth that he inhabits – but one cannot help thinking that Sono might have dug a little deeper and dreamed a little harder. Certainly he does not come even close to the imaginative underground of his previous three films, let alone of that other work named for a mole, Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo (1970)...

Reviewed on: 10 Apr 2012
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Himizu packshot
A pair of teens struggle to get by in a Japan that has been ravaged by natural disaster.
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Director: Shion Sono

Writer: Minoru Furuya, Shion Sono

Starring: Sometani Shota, Nikaidou Fumi, Watanabe Tetsu, Fukikoshi Mitsuru, Kagurazaka Megumi, Mitsuishi Ken, Denden, Kubozuka Yosuke

Year: 2011

Runtime: 129 minutes

Country: Japan


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