It must be very difficult to be a teenage girl in Japanese high school. The sexually repressed culture tells you one thing, but the fetishistic uniforms suggest something else. Add in all the corrosiveness of social media and you have a recipe for potential tragedy. Such will be the case for poor Hitomi Sugimoto in Takaomi Ogata’s The Hungry Lion (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.
At first, it is funny to Sugimoto and her friends when their homeroom teacher is perp-walked out of class by the cops. Everyone enjoys the scandal of his alleged statutory crimes, until one of his purported sex tapes is leaked. Although Sugimoto sees no similarities between herself and the compromised girl in the video, somehow everyone else is convinced it is her. It starts with whispering, escalates into taunting and bullying, and then culminates in full-fledged sexual harassment.
Sadly, we can guess exactly where this story is headed, but it is still devastating when it gets there. Ogata cranks up the verisimilitude, using a highly realistic, unforgivingly digital style not unlike the online videos that cause so much damage in the film. While Ogata does not confine himself to personal device screens, in the manner of the upcoming Searching movie (simply known as Search at Sundance), he still very clearly reflects the way they shape teenagers’ perspectives. The upshot is we really do feel like we are voyeuristically watching the real-life downfall of a teenager. However, Ogata has plenty to say after the inevitable. In fact, he practically chokes viewers on irony.
Urara Matsubayashi is so believable as Sugimoto, it is absolutely terrifying. Her deer-in-the-headlights look will utterly haunt you. In fact, the entire cast looks so real, you could believe this is some sort of docu-hybrid. The narrative might be fictional, but it is probably based on plenty of real life incidents.
In a way, Hungry Lion is like Murder on the Orient Express. Everyone helped do in Sugimoto. Friends, rivals, adults, family—nobody’s hands are clean in this one. It is often a tough film to watch, but it still manages to shock and surprise. Arguably, Yumi Sawai’s precise editing is key to the overall effect. It is devastating, but probably a necessary warning regarding kids and social media. Highly recommended, The Hungry Lion screens Saturday (6/30) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.