Ichiro Yamada is bullied regularly in high school, but that does not necessarily mean he is a good person. In fact, he is arguably a creepy sociopath, but the rest of his classmates are not much better. The kids are definitely not alright in Isao Yukisada’s River’s Edge (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.
Haruna Wakakusa often protects the sensitive looking Yamada from her knuckle-dragging boyfriend Kannonzaki, but she still sleeps with the lout. However, she insists on protection and keeps things pretty conventional. Her bestie Rumi, on the other hand, will indulge Kannonzaki’s kinky and irresponsible demands on the side. Wakakusa might have initially felt an attraction to Yamada, but he nips that in the bud by coming out to her. Sadly, he has not been as honest and decent with Kanna Tajima, an enraptured underclassman he has been using as a cover for his true sexuality.
Yamada has not let Tajima in on his other secret either. His special place of refuge from the world is a weedy nook by the river that shelters a desiccated corpse. For some reason, he finds its presence soothing. The fact that it might be somebody’s missing loved one never crosses his mind—or if it does, it doesn’t bother him. Wakakusa also seems untroubled by this special secret Yamada shares with her and the same is true of his other platonic girlfriend, Kozue Yoshikawa, a teen actress-model with a disturbing binge-and-purge habit.
Seriously, aren’t you glad you’ve graduated from high school? At least River’s Edge is a period piece set in the early 1990s, so everyone is spared the nefarious multiplier effect of social media. Misaki Setoyama’s adaptation of the cult manga series is uncompromisingly honest and brutally naturalistic, but it just leaves the audience with a sense of emptiness. Nihilism, cynicism, and misanthropy really don’t leave us with much to work with.
Nevertheless, the young cast are uniformly quite remarkable. Fumi Nikaido does some career best work as Wakakusa, which is saying something. She rather fools the audience with her plucky façade, but when she finally reveals how empty she is inside, it is quite heavy. Likewise, Ryo Yoshizawa is absolutely chilling as cold, calculating Yamada. As Yoshikawa, Sumire (one name only) has that undefinable “it” quality that just pops off the screen. However, it is Aoi Morikawa who really brings the emotional pile-driver as the naïve and vulnerable Tajima.
Youth are often aimless in Japanese films, going back to the original “Sun Tribe” movies, but River’s Edge takes it to a whole new level. It is sometimes shocking and maybe a little depressing, but there is no denying its potency. Recommended for black coffee-drinking cineastes, River’s Edge screens Tuesday evening (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.