In films as diverse as his four-hour epic Love Exposure and his dark serial-killer drama Cold Fish, Sion Sono's characters struggle mightily and extravagantly through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Combined with his love of pushing the envelope of taste with the stories he tells, his films often play like exhausting emotional assaults, operatic in their intensity.
Himizu, from 2011, is no different, with the pubescent Sumida (Shōta Sometani) driven to the edge of knife-wielding madness in part because of the unbelievable stress he's forced to shoulder in having to manage the family boat-renting business when both his parents abandon him. But the film adds up to much more than a two-hour wallow in physical and emotional brutality. Sono's film is a vision of coming of age as trial by fire, a thunderous encapsulation of that period of transition in which adolescents try to discover themselves: their passions, their purpose, their sense of morality. It's just that Sumida, with his perpetually weary facial expression, has already begun adolescence in a state of numbed despair—cynical about his teacher's banal attempts to convince his students of their inherent specialness, resistant to the romantic advances of the girl (Fumi Nikaidō) who has a crush on him, and generally distrustful enough of people to refuse help from anybody. One can hardly blame him, though, with an alcoholic father who openly wishes for his son's death and a mother who could care less about anybody but herself.
There's also a more topical dimension to the film beyond its depiction of Sumida's bleak adolescence. Originally intended as a straight adaptation of Minoru Furuya's manga, Himizu was made in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster three years ago, and the specter of not only the tragedy itself, but the societal implications of its aftermath hangs heavily over the film. In one scene, a television newscast reports on revelations of a government cover-up in the aftermath of the disaster, which underscores the positive-spin-at-all-costs mindset against which Sumida balks. And the suggestion of a deeper sickness in Japanese society is brought to the fore later when Sumida witnesses a teenager stab an old lady on a crowded bus after she has loudly voiced her indignation at his refusal to give up his seat to a pregnant woman.
But perhaps the most direct explication of the connection between Fukushima Daiichi and Sumida's troubled adolescence comes courtesy of Sumida's loyal older friend, Yoruno (Tetsu Watanabe), during a scene in which gangsters come around to the boat-rental shop seeking repayment of Sumida's father's debts. As one gangster gives Sumida a beat-down, Yoruno chimes in and castigates the gangsters for spending so much energy roughing up a kid over "only six million yen"—small potatoes in the long run. In Himizu, the Fukushima Daiichi disaster hovers over events like these in a God-like manner, as if casting quiet judgment on the relative triviality of all this internal and interpersonal angst in light of larger societal and environmental threats.
But though Sono isn't shy about putting his characters' struggles into perspective, that doesn't mean he shortchanges their dramatic weight. Love, as ever with Sono, is the force that has the power to open up paths to redemption for his angst-ridden characters, as long as they're open to receiving it, especially in a society marked by self-interested indifference. Just as Love Exposure ended with a simple yet heartrending image of one hand reaching out for another, Himizu finds a similarly hard-won feeling of hope as Sumida discovers new and reinvigorating meaning in the aforementioned teacher's platitudes that he had so bitterly dismissed previously.