Japanese Title: かしこい狗は、吠えずに笑う
Romaji: Kashikoi Inu wa, Hoezu ni Warau
Release Date: June 22nd, 2013
UK Release Date: March 24th, 2014
Distributor: Third Window Films
Running Time: 94 mins.
Director: Ryohei Watanabe
Writer: Ryohei Watanabe (Screenplay)
Starring: mimpi * β, Izumi Okamura, Isao Nakazawa, Gota Ishida, Ayumi Seko
One would be forgiven for thinking that the Japanese film industry has resorted to producing nothing more than big-budget adaptations of novels, books, and anime and retreads of tried and tested formulas. Original ideas are still alive and kicking, particularly in the indie scene, but sometimes hard to track amidst all of the noise that the bigger releases produce. When an original indie film does make a splash, word spreads quickly over the internet. “Shady” is a prime example.
The first post fellow blogger Alua made for 2013 contained the trailer for this film and I commented on it stating that I liked it. I kept an eye on it and finally got to see it at last year’s Raindance Film Festival and let me tell you what a surprise it was.
The setting is a familiar one, a girl’s school. The students inside seem familiar as well. Our protagonist is Misa Kumada (mimpi * β). Because of her last name “Kumada” (bear + rice paddy) and her appearance, Misa’s high school classmates call her “Pooh” disparagingly.
She regards herself as ugly and does her best to keep a low-profile so school bully Aya cannot torment her.
She’s the only member of the science club and eats in science lab alone because she lacks friends. She does have animal friends. Her pet parrot named Chunta and the science club goldfish named Kintaro.
Life is dull but attempting to solve a math problem in front of her class brings Misa to the attention of Izumi Kiyose (Izumi Okamura), the prettiest girl in school and a popular classmate, who notices Misa struggling at the blackboard.
Izumi is bad at mathematics as well, so she hands Misa an answer sheet for a forthcoming test which she got from manipulating a teacher.
Misa then finds herself quickly becoming best friends with Izumi. Although somewhat puzzled by Izumi’s interest in her, Misa is excited about having a friend for the first time ever. But Izumi’s initial angelic demeanour gradually transforms…
“Shady” is a surprise. A pleasant one. It is the directorial debut of Ryohei Watanabe, a screenwriter by trade, and it was made on a modest budget of £10,000 and a lot of the actors performed for free. You would not be able to tell that these were the circumstances from the final cut of the film. The directing, editing, sound design, soundtrack and the acting are all pitch perfect and so good, they make the film look like a bigger budget and classier release.
I imagine that Watanabe is extremely well-versed in films for this is a demonstration of filmmaking from a fine cineliterate mind. It is post-modern in the way it mixes genres like the school romances of Shunji Iwai and the dark female psychological dramas of Roman Polanski, Michael Haneke and Francois Ozon and yet it never feels derivative. The final result is something wholly original. A striking and exciting, gripping and dramatic film that renews a viewer’s faith in the creativity bubbling away in the independent Japanese film scene.
What makes another person change is another person
The power of the film is in the fact that the actors are so good they could be seasoned pros and the script is humanist, full of the rich character development that, together with the acting, embeds the viewer in the life of the film.
The film is structured as an extended flashback and builds up an emotionally rich picture through its events. Whatever happens in the film, the audience is rooted to events because Watanabe has created characters we care for. So much depends upon the performances of the two lead actresses, mimpi * β and Izumi Okamura who dazzle.
Misa is a typical outsider – not dark, violent, or rebellious but quiet and distant. mimpi * β plays her as a person familiar with disappointment, always on the outside and quite capable of accepting her circumstances because they are all she knows. She enters most scenes with her head bowed, her eyes nervously scanning the halls and classrooms, physically huddled as if expecting the world to throw something at her and she only lets her guard down when around her pets.
Then she meets Izumi.
Izumi is relentlessly smiley happy, the sort of sunny person who sees the best in life despite being bullied like Misa. She has stepped into the shade at times by being a little dangerous but is ostensibly fun and bubbly and willing to share herself with Misa. At once an equal and approachable yet worldly, wise in some of the arts of feminine power and mysterious, she is ready to take Misa’s hand and lead her down paths sometimes dark, sometimes fun.
Misa’s response is halting at first. Can this girl really like me? Misa soon embraces her and Izumi provides her with new experiences. Misa’s constant frown gives way to smiles when she hears her phone ring, she runs and shouts, she begins to open up about her emotions and talk more and it is a joy to behold because the kid needs some joy in her life.
Clearly Izumi is the first person to offer the kind of friendship and intimacy that she cannot seek from her parents no matter how much they may dote on her. What’s more, Izumi needs her as well. Izumi is a victim of bullying and she is alone. She needs Misa as a friend and confidante, someone true to cling to so together they can laugh at the rest of the world. They are soon together, hand in glove. This makes both Izumi and Misa happy.
I do this because I love you
The scenes between Misa and Izumi detail the sort of close bonding teenager’s desire like the gossip, buying and making gifts for each other, make-up sessions, secrets told, opinions sought, and general larking around after school. The acting has the sort of intimacy that makes their growing relationship absorbing.
The direction is so precise it captures this intimacy with great fineness. The pacing of the film maintains the gentle rhythm of change and remembrance of fond memories, the camera weaves in and out of classes and corridors, patiently watching the characters eating, talking, thinking and so captures those little human moments that build and maintain relationships. The looks shot across classroom, smiles when a gaze is caught, the surprise and joy when something unexpected and nice happens and they think about each other. What makes it heart-warming is that we know this is Misa’s first taste of it in high school, that Izumi is opening up her horizons and together they reach new levels of happiness that the bullies can never touch. Could this intimacy be enough for either girl?
For Misa it is more than enough. She now knows that the gap between herself and everybody else can be bridged, she can be accepted by others and her world grows bigger than the classroom but for Izumi there is a darkness inside her which her smile hides. She needs Misa to fill in a void and give her some stability. We get glimpses of it in scenes, snatches of dialogue, her messy home life, the “mature” things she does and the way she becomes possessive.
It’s natural to want to keep something close to yourself if you love it
To reveal anything more of the story is to ruin it. Things happen in the second half but even when found out the pleasure and emotions of it remain in a second and third viewing. What also remains and grows more apparent is the skill of the writer/director Ryohei Watanabe.
“Shady” is so confidently shot, so well put together you would not know it was Watanabe’s debut. Forgive me for throwing in film jargon in the next few paragraphs but every technical aspect is perfect.
The script uses the audience’s familiarity with genre to wrong-foot it (much like what happens in the Korean film “Mother” which I reviewed last week). The script builds layers of detail to initially conform to and then defy our assumptions even past the point when a normal film might allow audience’s sight of the ending. You won’t see what’s coming. I was astounded and gripped by the events that unfolded on screen. It reminded me of what emotional involvement a skilled writer can weave.
On top of writing an excellent script and getting excellent performances, Watanabe ensures that sight and sound are God-tier in perfection.
The world we see and hear is reality and yet some carefully chosen elements add a strange but understandable touch of the surreal and hyper-reality which makes proceedings more intense and gripping.
The emotional information necessary for the film to work is delivered faultlessly through camera angles and editing which are rigorously chosen. There is not a moment of downtime or a wasted shot. Medium shots and close-ups contain the sense of intimacy and we feel comfortable intruding on the girl’s private time but it changes into something far more uncomfortable as their behaviour morphs over the course of the story. The details are all perfect – the bicycle that Izumi has is bright red, eye-catching like her, like the way she is an extrovert, dangerous. The film’s score is stellar with a mix of heart-breaking songs, lithe piano melodies and heart-racing discordant electronic soundtrack all of which were created or worked on by lead actress mimpi * β. My favourite scene has to be a tracking shot as the girl’s ride their bicycles.
It is the high point of their relationship, it is a scene full of freedom and joy. The actors sail along through a field, the landscape wheels by and the soundtrack soars. It allows the audience and actresses to breath and feels exhilarating. Another scene I adore is Izumi cornering Misa during class. A seemingly innocuous question takes on dark and ominous overtones as Izumi repeatedly clicks her ballpoint pen, rough electronic music swells up as the camera zooms in on her smiling face.
It is all stirring stuff and it made me feel emotions that did not subside until the end of the film. Even hearing musical cues or watching the trailer will dredge them up. To call this the most impressive début in Japanese film of 2013 does not quite do enough to describe how talented Watanabe is or how good this film is.
A film like “Shady” simply must be seen. It will grapple with your emotions and when the lights are put on in the cinema you will breathe a sigh of relief and want to discuss the plot, the way that Watanabe creates meta references to other films, dupes us into watching a narrative that refuses to follow traditional paths and ends on a rather unsettling note. You will want to discuss how he always finds a way to disrupt meaning and the way the actresses are so perfect in their roles that other actors or actresses could not do what they did. You will want to compare “Shady” to other school films or relationship dramas and probably find them lacking in some way. You will want to discuss “Shady” and re-experience it to confirm what you just saw.
This is why “Shady” was the best film I saw in 2013.