Sunday, July 14, 2013

Japan Cuts ’13 & NYAFF ’13: The Kirishima Thing

Is he a teenaged John Galt or is something more sinister afoot?  Either way, the mysterious absence of a high school’s top BMOC leaves a void his peers will struggle to fill in Daihachi Yoshida’s The Kirishima Thing (trailer here), which screens tonight as a co-presentation of this year’s Japan Cuts and the New York Asian Film Festival.

Even though he was selected to the state squad, Kirishima has reportedly quit the volleyball team.  His friends and teammates have yet to hear it from him directly, because he has not been to class lately. He has not even contacted his bombshell girlfriend Risa, whose insecurity mounts when everyone turns to her for answers. 

She is still at the top of the social pyramid, but the interregnum loosens her hold on Kasumi Higashihara, a geek-turned-hottie.  Temporarily falling back into old habits, she even attends a Tetsuo screening where she runs into Ryoya Maeda, the socially awkward leader of the school’s film club.  Picking up on the spirit of anarchy, Maeda convinces the club to defy their faculty advisor by shooting the sort of zombie film they always wanted to make.

As Maeda starts to get ideas about everything, including Higashihara, prize-winning band saxophonist Aya Samashima considers acting on her attraction to Kirishima’s elitist crony, Hiroki Kikuchi.  However, these are not pleasant times for the bench-warmer taking Kirishima’s place on the team, thanks to Kubo, the punishing team captain.

Will the established social order breakdown or will knuckle-draggers like Kubo maintain it the hard way?  Just how irreplaceable is Kirishima to the school’s social ecosystem anyway?  It is hard to say for certain, because K Thing presents so many conflicting viewpoints. Kirishima and his absence mean many things to many people.  He is probably a better chap than Kubo, but viewers never have the chance to see for themselves.  Instead, he serves as a giant Rohrschach to evaluate his peers.

Frequently doubling-back, K Thing excessively analyzes relatively mundane encounters from just about every POV.  At times, it really is overkill, but in the process, Yoshida fully develops his large cast of characters and their intricate relationship dynamics.  When the film is over, alert audience members will be able to produce flow charts of who likes who.  Despite the mysterious vibe lurking over the proceedings (and an occasional zombie flight of fantasy), these kids and their school feel really real.

Evidently, some things about high school are universal, but this student body is unusually good looking.  Nevertheless, Ai Hashimoto is fantastic as the chameleon-like Higashihara.  Who she is largely depends on who she is with, but Yoshida never condemns her for that. Arguably, it is a reflection of human nature. Suzuka Ohgo is compellingly intense as Sawashima, even though she hardly looks like a band-geek. Appropriately ambiguous, Ryunosuke Kamiki’s Maeda comes across as a half-victim and half-provocateur, which suits the film nicely.

K Thing will not shake viewers to their souls like Tetsuya Nakashima’s thematically related Confessions, but it will still get under their skin.  One could argue it is also more genre than it initially appears. Yoshida skillfully balances his large ensemble, getting brutally honest performances out of the young but accomplished cast-members. Recommended for those who appreciate dark teen dramas, The Kirishima Thing screens tonight (7/14) at the Japan Society, as a co-programmed selection of Japan Cuts and the New York Asian Film Festival.