While Japan's pool of yesterday's cinematic wonder boys is slowly drying up, there's a frighteningly low influx of younger talent. So imagine people's relief when they bumped into Ryohei Watanabe's Shady [Kashikoi Inu wa Hoezuni Warau]. The film may not be up there with the very best, but at the very least it's a hopeful sign that the healing process has started. On top of that, it's just a very good film with Watanabe's talent shining through every frame of the film.
Japan is still making amazing films. Just last year alone we saw the release of Jigoku de Naze Warui (Sono), Kaze Tachinu (Miyazaki), Kotonoha no Niwa (Shinkai), Miss Zombie (Tanaka) and Petaru Dansu (Ishikawa). All great films (and personal favorites), but also made by people who've been in the business for a while now. To survive the next 20 years, Japan needs the voice of a younger generation and currently that is lacking.
Watanabe's film isn't a major departure from traditional Japanese cinema. In fact, there are so many familiar element that at first glance you might mistake it for just another Japanese drama. A Hana to Arisu for a new generation, if you want. But slowly the discrepancies start to surface. Small changes, different accents that may not look like much on paper, but make a big difference in the final product. I think I was about halfway through when it started to dawn on me that Watanabe houses an enormous talent.
The film follows Misa, a rather unfortunate student who has a difficult time bonding with her classmates. Misa has no real friends and struggles with her loneliness. Until one day, when she is approached by Izumi. Izumi is the type who has everything going for her, an archetypical popular student. But she too gets bullied in class. The two hit it off and begin a rewarding friendship. Everything goes well, until the bond between the two becomes a bit too intense for Misa.
While the indoor scenes can come off a bit murky, Watanabe has a good eye for composition. The outdoor scenes in particular are well-framed and feature some pretty impressive shots. The true beauty of the film lies in the editing and pacing though. Sharp, often somewhat strange and surprising cuts (somewhat reminiscent of Takeshi Kitano's older work) give Shady a very unique tempo and feel.
The soundtrack has similar qualities. At first you might mistake it for a typical Japanese drama soundtrack, but the music itself is absolutely top notch and the way Watanabe applies it throughout his film is nothing short of amazing. He plays with atmosphere, sometimes highlighting certain emotions, at other times contrasting the music and the on-screen events. Add to that some well-timed voice-overs and you have all the signs of a director who understand the impact sound has on the overall atmosphere.
Finishing things off are two leads who deserve all the praise they can get. Misa (played by a girl only known as mimpi*β) is the toughest character of the two, grasping for the audience's compassion with what is essentially a pretty passive role. Okamura's character (Izumi) is more outgoing and mysterious, yet she has to balance some rather cartoonesque behavior without hurting the grim atmosphere of the film. The both of them do a tremendous job and carry the film with ease.
Even though the first half of the film has all the characteristics of a regular drama, there's a strong feeling of unease running underneath. A smart combination of editing and music make for a disconcerting feeling that signals the second half of the film without spoiling too much of what will happen. Not that there are many twists here, Watanabe isn't playing a game of hide and seek with his audience, but he makes sure to insert some doubt in the viewer's minds before opening up the real story.
Shady is a film that takes a bunch of familiar elements, rearranges them slightly but deliberately and adds a dash of its own uniqueness. It's a film that leaves room for progression, but does so without ever coming off as sub-par. Instead it highlights Watanabe's talent and vision. Give his a little room, some money and a couple more years to experiment and he could become one of the cornerstones of Japan's cinematic future. Shady is a great film in its own right, but at the same time it feels like a promise of even better things to come.