Promises 子供たち Dir: Mikihiro Endo (2015) Osaka Asian Film Festival Housen Catalogue

Promises

子供たち   Kodomotachi   

Running Time: 85 mins.

Director: Mikihiro Endo

Writer: N/A

Starring: Shugo Oshinari, Tatsuki Ishikawa,

Promises, one of three films from graduates of the film course at Tokyo University of Fine Arts, was the only film in the Housen strand at the Osaka Asian Film Festival that would qualify as feature-length in terms of duration. Much like the other entries, it was professionally shot and featured great performances from its cast and it used its extra time to ask big questions about identity. This is a somewhat intriguing but fuzzy existential tale about false masks worn in society and authenticity and the creeping madness that emerges in people when there is a gap between the two.

A young man named Masaru Fukada (Oshinari) begins working as a teacher at an English cram school. His big selling-point as a teacher is that he has lived and studied in America but it’s all a lie. He didn’t go to America to learn English, he used reference books and online tutorials. Despite this, his English is pretty good – far more natural and easy to understand than some professional teachers in state schools. He may not have the experience but he can act like he does. Thus, his employers encourage him to teach and ready the students to perform at a speech contest.

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He strikes up a friendship with one student named Kota Watanabe (Ishikawa) and the two form a connection outside of school when he helps Kota and his mother out with a lift home. Kota’s father has been in hospital for six months under mysterious circumstances and it seems like the boy is left to his own devices so Fukada lives up to the principal of teacher as guardian and steps in to offer help, perhaps taking a shine to Kota’s mother as well.

Other than entering this domestic drama, it seems like Fukada’s everyday life is smooth sailing and without any problems on the horizon. His only other personal connections are a pet and a call-girl named Mika. However, his new life is all built on a lie and Fukada finds that lying in the school to his students hurts him. Things become strange when students exhibit eerie behaviour including one young girl who builds up a fantasy about dating a teacher. The more this strange behaviour spreads amongst the children, the more it seems like a disease epidemic with everyone, including Fukada and his worries over his authenticity, set to go crazy…

Going into this film I had high expectations because I am a big fan of Tomodachi 友達 (2014) (more info in Japanese here), Endo’s debut feature-length film about actors hired by lonely people coming to believe in the role they were hired to play out of a basic human need to connect to others. Tomodachi‘s story convincingly showed characters believing in the fantasies and becoming addicted to them until their true feelings poked through at the end. It had a dry atmosphere (I use this term to mean unemotional and subtle) and the actor’s performance gave their characters brittle facades underneath which existed hungry hearts but it also offered the glimmer of hope that people could become attached to each other and eventually connect. It was a slow burn drama with a quiet ending that I found powerful and positive.

We get more of the same here in terms of of atmosphere and subject-matter with a film shot with lots of static shots coloured in with funereal tones of blacks and greys and a desolate soundscape with a lot of silence. It feels like the story takes place in a vacuum due to the lack of life but shorn of distractions, the narrative doubles-down on exploring the way people come to be a particular kind of person through the goals that they pursue and how the lack of authentic values makes an individual unstable. This is done through a disturbing war between the adults, people conditioned into allowing their personality to be subsumed into wider society and adopting false masks, and the kids, who let their id run free and act authentically according to their desires.

In the centre of this battle is Masaru who projects possessing a fun self-image but does so through complete and utter control. He leads his class with ease but is keen to maintain his distance with students, failing to intervene in some matters of mistreatment. His pet Marco is caged and under tight control while Mika’s time is bought on a date plan. With clear parameters for relationships, he is seemingly untroubled but the absence of an authentic background leaves him feeling insecure and he begins to question what his own goals are when the children start acting strangely, most prominently with Kota.

It starts off slowly. Some bizarre attachment to thanatos grips the kids who look at strange websites showing dead or tortured animals, they keep a pigeon trapped in a cage, they dig up the corpses of dead animals. Children testing the limits of their empathy may flirt with morbid issues and treat living creatures in ways not sanctioned by society to actualise their personality but the levels here are raised to disturbing levels. Indeed, the imagery of dead animals and the way their corpses are dealt with may have the power to shock some audiences out of a stupor especially when this treatment is extended to people. One stomach-churning sequence involving the young girl with the fixation on her teacher is sure to upset viewers as much as seeing Kota’s wrecked home full of menacing pictures drawn with crayons on the wall. Finally, the look of horror on his injured mother’s face and seeing the father at the end, it raises disturbing implications. The film ably provokes the intellect before subtle social horror is introduced to stir visceral reactions.

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Change happens because of these incidents that make the world uncanny but not all of it is negative. Crucial moments include Mika who offers a genuine relationship not based on commerce but on real emotions. I was practically screaming at Fukada to accept her offer of romantic companionship especially since it seemed like the perfect escape from the encroaching madness and she offers it in a romantic location, a huge field covered in multi-coloured lights shot in such a way that it looks stunning especially after all of the dull tones used for the rest of the film. It was beautiful and like being able to breathe after what had come before. Whether Fukada can grab on to her offer or not is for the viewer to find out but it is clear that Fukada is struggling with his own issues of authenticity and the children keep challenging him to break out of his cage. Indeed. a scene in a church confessional box radically alters the screen which shows Fukada behind bars like that of a cage.

The film is sedate, even more so than Tomodachi, and it risks becoming soporific. One sequence in particular, a long car ride with Fukada that seems to act as an exploration of space illuminating the theme of artificiality in big cities, goes on too long. However, the ideas broached by the script and shown on screen are insidious and crescendo at the end with a direct to camera speech given by a student who exhorts the audience both on and off screen to live authentically. Is this the healthiest option? That’s left for the audience to decide.

We get there thanks to good acting. Tatsuki Ishikawa, one of the few professional child actors (there were a lot of amateurs) on the film has appeared in big films such as Boku Dake ga Inai Machi (2016) and A Liar and a Broken Girl (2011) and gives a suitably menacing performance as a child who is out of control – give him psychic powers and he’d be a horror film villain. Shugo Oshinari is something of a journeyman actor, having appeared in Battle Royale II and the awful, awful White Panic and Kabukicho Love Hotel (2015) and provides a stable foil for Tatsuki and a way into seeing the battle for identity. They ably lead the rest of the cast through this drama and have good chemistry together.

You have to be fully committed to examining the spaces and performances on screen. Nothing is handed to the audience easily but then the most worthwhile things in life require us to work hard for them and that’s why we dream, to get the motivation to achieve things. As one character says, “Let’s dream until it becomes real.” Let us hope everyone has nice dreams and Fukada gets peace. And Mika.

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Director Mikihiro Endo completed a course at the Graduate School of Film and New Media, Tokyo University of the Arts and his graduation film, Friends (2013), which he directed and co-wrote, was nominated for Best Debut Feature by the 2013 Raindance Film Festival in London. Endo also directed a segment of the 2013 film Rakugo Eiga.

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