Japanese Title: 神童
Release Date: April 21st, 2007
Running Time: 120 mins.
Director: Koji Hagiuda
Writer: Kosuke Mukai (Screenplay),
Starring: Riko Narumi, Kenichi Matsuyama, Satomi Tezuka, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tamae Ando, Masahiro Komoto, Shihori Kanjiya, Akira Emoto,
Japanese cinema has a unique category of film known as seishun eiga (youth films or coming-of-age films). These are a pretty common in Japan because many are made to serve as a star-vehicle for some young up and coming talent. Shindo stands out by taking the audience into the world of its main protagonist and lets us experience things as she does.
Shindo can translate into genius or prodigy and the prodigy here is Uta Naruse (Riko Narumi). Her name means song and she is a musical prodigy, a gifted pianist. She could read sheet music before she could speak and can play complex pieces from memory.
This Uta is not the one that greets us when we first meet her. What we see is a feisty thirteen-year-old girl from a poor background with a bit of a rebellious attitude. She walks around with a defiant look and her speech can be rough for a girl her age especially when talking to seniors, she has no problem punching boys in her school but for all her fire she is immature as shown by her physical appearance. She slouches around, her twin-tails bouncing off the back of her school uniform and her stuffed animal Gan is a constant companion. Her attitude is partly in reaction to the people who surround her who keep pushing her to play the piano, especially her mother Mika (Satomi Tezuka), because her gift is one that can set her up for a successful career.
While she resents the constant practice and seeks to defy her mother by avoiding it, as adults are sure to see, her rebelliousness is a cover for her confusion with life. She has entered the fog of her teenage years and is beset by hormones and self-doubt, worries about health and her future. She negotiates romantic advances from boys at school and she suffers a little bullying for being kept out of school activities but what weighs most heavily is the mysterious disappearance of her father (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a piano virtuoso himself and the parent she feels the most affinity to. As much as music stifles her it offers her a way to relive treasured moments from her childhood when she spent time with her father. It is a mess of emotions rich in drama.
We as an audience wonder how she will grow as a person?
Uta forms an unlikely friendship with the older Wao Kikuna (Kenichi Matsuyama), the son of a grocer and an aspiring musician who is a ronin-student looking to get into university. He dreams big but is uncertain about how to achieve things. With her help he may be able to get into a prestigious university. For Uta, his presence helps her negotiate some of the more complex feelings of adolescence.
We are in no doubt that the two will grow and, like most musical films, it will crescendo with a musical performance but a lot of the enjoyment to be had is experiencing their journey.
The film is mostly conventional visually and rhythmically. It starts off at a fair clip with a set of sequences delivered in a staccato manner as we are introduced to people and places. We are in the familiar urban landscape of schools, shopping arcades, and Wao’s working-class neighbourhood and we see the people who inhabit these places, chief amongst them Uta and Wao, their relationship forming the heart of the film.
It develops as we get to the middle portion of the film where a slower tempo is used to reveal back-story. There is a complexity to the mise-en-scene that demonstrate the care and attention that has gone into making the film. Apart from a few sweeping establishing shots of outdoor locations or the interiors of large concert halls, there is not much in the way of showy camerawork to distract from the details to be gleaned from the screen. Cinematographer Yoshihiro Ikeuchi and director Koji Hagiuda use careful shot composition and set design to relay information on the people who are in the film and these items and locations are revisited multiple times, built upon to have more meaning. They play into the relationship dynamics between characters.
The best example is when we see Uta’s old house, a spacious building with surrounding grounds in the middle of a crowded city where space is at a premium. At the heart of this home is a room packed with expensive furniture reduced to ghost-like forms because they are covered in white sheets and a grand piano her father owned that stands proud. We see her new home, a somewhat bare and boxy apartment with blank white walls she shares with her somewhat strict and mostly absent mother and a picture of her deceased father that stares out mournfully. Contact between the family has been disrupted by the father’s death and the lack of Mika’s presence as she works hard to keep their finances steady and we realise Uta has lost a lot at a tender age. Even when Mika and Uta are together they are separate, taking different seat on a bus, the mother outside of the room Uta practices the piano in and an intriguing ambiguity arises into why Mika pushes Uta obsessively to practice. We understand why Uta hangs out at Wao’s home because of the warmth his crowded place radiates with its wooden furniture, heaps of knickknacks and the friendliness his down-to-earth parents offer. She finds cheap and tasty cup noodles, free fruit and grown-ups who encourage her to be normal and a guy she can hang out and play the piano with and talk to without the awkwardness she feels with her peers. It’s a relief for her and for Wao as well.
They are both natural musicians who live for music which is why they are drawn to each other. They urge each other on to become better at playing the piano and face the future and through this the film develops the idea that there is more to a musical performance than just pressing down on keys in time. There must be the will to play, the ideal to live for music and dedicate one’s life to it and there must be the support of others.
“Your playing sucks,” Uta keeps telling Wao with the cheekiest of grins. This is a truth and a provocation to spur him to improve because she cares enough to make him work. Their friendship and growing relationship is natural and beautiful, a deceptively light and carefree one that has profound depth of feeling and understanding and despite the small age difference, it is far from creepy, they offer each other companionship and guidance even if it isn’t that obvious. The two become something slightly more than friends, a chaste romance growing. The most intimate moments they get is when Uta holds Wao’s hands just before his college entrance exam. These are moments that demonstrate the bond they share and they are dotted throughout the film until the climax where they work together on an intimate piece that has been played in fragments but is unfurled in time for the closing credits, this music they play together, their bodies working together as one and the audience knowing that they have matured a lot from their time together.
The key thing for a film about music is sound and here the musical score is integrated with excellent sound direction and a selection of appropriate classical music pieces to show the influence all of these things have on people. Both Uta and Wao appreciate not just music but sounds. The film opens with Wao drifting on a boat, eyes closed, luxuriating in the ambient sounds of the river. There are scenes where Uta bangs a cup on a table and flicks and bites apple with long juicy crunches to hear the sounds they make. The two practice passage of music incessantly to understand how they evoke emotions. Most affectingly Uta, the real genius of the two, lives music and is usually haunted by some piece from her past she can hear as an echo that guides her. She may claim to hate the piano but she knows she has a talent and responsibility to exercise it.
Hagiuda’s camera doesn’t forget audience as it pans across them for reactions, catching the odd person keeping time with their pencil, the furrowed brows of those lost in a passage of music, the ones that have dozed off during a dull performance and those on the edge of their seat during a phenomenal performance.
All of this makes a film that is an enjoyable experience all around. It has great aesthetics and the script is rock-solid as it introduces characterisations and narrative turns with ease. The creaking machinery only to be heard in the penultimate concert scene where an unexpected event forces Uta to make a choice about playing the piano but we have learnt so much about the characters and appreciate them so much we can leave behind our cynicism and enjoy the moment.
I saw this film at the 2014 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme and have watched it numerous times since then. It is not stylistically daring but extremely well-made and I find it satisfying. Koji Hagiuda takes a solid script with a familiar narrative about growing up and uses the cinematic medium to create a film that demonstrates and extolls the power of music and talent by showing what these things mean for Uta and those who surround her.