The latest Asian movie releases. Prolific Japanese director Sion Sono returns with Himizu, a dark teen drama out in cinemas today from Third Window Films

Sion Sono, 2011, Japan
UK theatrical (Third Window Films)

The use of disasters – both natural and man-made – as a backdrop to film drama isn’t new. Events likes 9/11, Titanic, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 or the eruption of Mount Vesuvius have all been utilised in various ways by filmmakers over the years, but few directors have had the ‘luxury’ of being able to use the actual disaster itself rather than recreating it. Spike Lee got close with his footage of Ground Zero in 25th Hour, but even that fell short of what Sion Sono was able to achieve by filming in the wake of the Japanese tsunami last year. His script for Himizu was finished and ready to be shot when the disaster struck; after working for the relief effort, Sono decided to rewrite parts to incorporate this terrible event into the story. The result is far from the exploitative cash-in that this suggests, and the new elements add an extra layer of tragedy into an already fraught tale of loss, betrayal and madness.

Himizu – literally ‘mole’ – is based on Minoru Furuya’s manga and stars Shota Sometani as Sumida, a 14-year-old with a pretty dysfunctional homelife. His father is an abusive drunk who no longer lives with Sumida but likes to pop round to tell him he wishes he was dead, while his mother seems to barely notice he exists. When not at school, Sumida has to take care of the family business – running a boat-hire shack that stands metres from a scene of sprawling post-tsunami devastation. Things go from bad to worse when Sumida’s mother leaves and violent yakuzas start coming round to claim the money that his dad owes them. But Sumida has a guardian angel in the shape of Keiko (Fumi Nikaidou), a besotted classmate who refuses to let these terrible circumstances crush his spirit.

Himizu is Sono’s sixth film in five years, and like many directors who shoot quickly with a reoccurring cast and crew, he has developed a very distinctive tone and style across these pictures. Anyone who has seen the likes of Love Exposure or Cold Fish will recognise this as a Sono film straight away – the long, handheld takes, the ominous mix of string-heavy score and discordant sound design, a level of performance that frequently verges on the hysterical, and the constant straddling of a line between absurd comedy and dark, dark drama. Himizu places more emphasis on the latter than some of his other recent work, and the near operatic levels of emotional unburdening may well prove too much for some. Ironically, it’s relatively short for a Sono movie – though still 130 minutes – but at times the intensity makes it feel much longer than something like his four-hour pantie-peeking masterpiece Love Exposure.

So, Himizu may not be for the casual viewer, but devoted Sono-ites like myself will lap it up. I find him one of the most compelling directors currently working, and his ability to land emotional punches time and time again remains deeply impressive. He’s helped here by Sometani and Nikaidou, two brilliant young performers who deservedly won prizes at the Venice film festival and who give the film its vital soul. Sumida is lost and angry, his only desire to be neither “happy or unhappy”, just a normal citizen living out a normal life. He treats the utterly devoted Keiko like dirt for much the movie, but despite this (and indeed other, more psychotic acts) the vulnerability that Sometani conveys ensures that he remains a sympathetic figure throughout. The teen stars are joined by a colourful supporting cast – Tetsu Watanabe shines as an aging neighbour who lost everything in the tsunami and now only wants to help the troubled boy, while Cold Fish star Denden pops up as a violent but philosophical gangster.

There is humour here too, albeit of the very blackest variety. Keiko’s homelife is barely any better than Sumida’s; her parents have taken to building a full gallows in their house in the hope that she will use it to hang herself (honestly, it is quite funny in the film!). And there’s an entertaining sequence when Watanabe and a street thief he knows go to rob a neo-Nazi Yakuza in order to clear Sumida’s debts and end up sharing a freezer with a corpse while the Nazi rants at his TV from the next room. But moments like this are thin on the ground, and Sono is quick to return us to the misery.

The film’s technical accomplishments are also worthy of note. Shooting many scenes amidst the devastation wrought by the tsunami was always going to produce arresting visuals, but cinematographer Sôhei Tanikawa finds beauty amidst the chaos, his gliding steadicam producing some stunning shots. And there’s one shocking, pivotal scene that gets my vote for the best use of a crane you’re likely to see all year.

Himizu doesn’t exactly deliver a happy ending, but it does close on a more upbeat note than much of the previous two hours would suggest, and there are some truly heart-wrenching exchanges between Sometani and Nikaidou in the last act. Ultimately the film lacks, say, Cold Fish’s combustible mix of sex and gore or Love Exposure’s freewheeling verve to get it the same level of attention – raw human emotion is a harder sell and I suspect like last year’s underrated psychosexual comedy Guilty of Romance, it may not have much of an appeal beyond Sono’s fanbase. But it’s a powerful piece of work from a director who, after more than 30 films, is still finding new ways to challenge and provoke.