Saturday, July 19, 2014

Japan Cuts ’14: Hello! Junichi

Junichi Hayashida is a naturally empathetic kid. Unfortunately, that does not impress a lot of third graders. However, he might gain a little bit of confidence through time spent with his five friends and their bombshell student teacher. Being a kid is hard, but it still has its moments in Katsuhito Ishii, Kanoko Kawaguchi & Atsushi Yoshioka’s Hello! Junichi, which screens as part of the 2014 Japan Cuts: the New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Film (special festival trailer here).

Anna-Sensei makes quite an impression on everyone, especially Hayashida’s romantically frustrated homeroom teacher. However, he still only has eyes for Maeda. During art class, he found himself borrowing a bunny eraser from her, but he has yet to gird up the courage to return it. This is the sort of thing Anna-Sensei picks up on immediately. Initially, this intimidates Hayashida, just like everything else in life, except more so. Yet, he comes to trust her when she defends him and his mates when they get into a tight spot.

Although Junichi’s parents are well to do, he spends more time with more-with-it-than-he-seems grandfather. Unfortunately, his friend Masato Kuramoto’s home life is much more difficult. Money is tight, so his soon-to-be single mother must work multiple jobs. To help him give her special birthday, Hayashida and his friends agree to stage a special concert for her, with Anna-Sensei’s help, of course.

In terms of tone, Hello is reminiscent of Ishii’s The Taste of Tea, but it substitutes moments of wild but terrestrial zaniness for the magical realism of his Tochigi-set family pastoral. Co-directed with two of his workshop graduates, Hello balances a battalion of characters with ease. They mostly maintain a mood of wistful whimsy, but it still forthrightly addresses the issue of bullying.

Hikari Mitsushima, who took no prisoners in Sion Sono’s Love Exposure, once again becomes a force of nature as Anna-Sensei, the Miss Jean Brodie we always wanted. She develops some real chemistry with her young co-stars and looks great beating on the various adults who cross her. Still, young Amon Kabe distinguishes himself, carrying the narrator-chief POV duties like a good little soldier.

Likewise, Yohei Hotta and Rio Sasaki are remarkably compelling as the gruff but sensitive Kuramoto and the forceful aspiring pop idol, Kayo Tanaka. Frankly, the all the third grade supporting players are quite assured. It is some of their adult counterparts who get a bit shticky (but not enough to undermine the film’s good vibes).

Anna-Sensei’s magnetism is undeniable and her kids are all quite endearing. As a result, it is hard to imagine anyone would not be won over by Hello’s charm. Gentle but relatively true to life, it is perfect for family viewing. To that end, the Japan Society is offering a special $6 admission deal for children twelve or younger. Recommended with affection, Hello! Junichi screens tomorrow (7/20), the closing day of this year’s Japan Cuts.