Saturday, July 28, 2018

Japan Cuts ’18: Amiko

High school crushes tend to be disappointing, especially if you get stuck with them permanently. Maybe this plucky Japanese school girl should consider herself lucky to be spared the popular Aomi. However, she figures a cute boy who can quote Radiohead is worth fighting for, so she intends to take her shot in screenwriter-director Yoko Yamanaka’s Amiko (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Social media is not exactly a progressive force in Yamanaka’s film, but at least we will be spared the kind of bullying and shaming horror stories that have driven so many recent Japanese high school dramas. Amiko does not have a great many friends, but she is relatively leveled headed. She is not engaging in sexual activity either, though she might have some ambitions with respect to Aomi. He is a disdainfully cool kind of kid, who hates playing on the soccer team, even though he is their star player. Aesthetically, Amiko finds him totally dishy, especially after spending one fateful day with him.

Their banter was everything she could hope for, but they haven’t spoken since. She hasn’t fully revealed her feelings to her bestie Kanako yet, but it is pretty clear she is nursing a crush on someone. That is why Amiko almost feels betrayed when he runs off to Tokyo, under highly disappointing circumstances.

The way the film represents modern teens’ preoccupations and anxieties definitely has the ring of authenticity, which is to be expected, considering Yamanaka shot Amiko on the fly when she was only nineteen-years-old. It also has some of the sad-girl-poetry excesses of its demographic. Nevertheless, there is something appealing about its rawness and lack of pretense. Even with the brief sixty-five-minute running time, Amiko has the stuff of a neo-neo-punk cult favorite. Yet, despite all attention devoted to Aomi, the freshest, most memorable aspect of the film is its depiction of her friendship with Kanako.

Aira Sunohara is terrific as the title character. She can be both tart-tongued and touching, even during the same scene. Likewise, Mako Mineo is quite endearing as the somewhat naïve Kanako. The chemistry shared by her and Sunohara is totally convincing, but it is hard to see why anyone would be so obsessed with Hiroto Oshita’s aloof Aomi.

After watching Amiko, we wish we could introduce the titular protag to Izumi Kawashima, the sarcastic Daria-like heroine of About the Pink Sky. They share similarly mordant perspectives, but Kawashima might have helped moderate Amiko’s consuming ardor. It probably hits home with a bang for many teens, but for older viewers, it is just a mostly amiable but rather rough around the edges amble through the collective unconscious of Japanese youth culture. Recommended as much for Yamanaka’s future promise as for its own merits, Amiko screens tomorrow afternoon (7/29) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts (and screens again this coming Tuesday during Fantasia).