(note: review originally published 29 November 2008)
It would be tempting to see Gaichu (known in the west as Harmful Insect), Akihiko Shiota's fourth (and probably best-known) film, as a kind of Japanese version of American Beauty, but focused on Thora Birch rather than Kevin Spacey. And while there's certainly an element of alienation here that every girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen is more than likely to empathize with, and while American Beauty's unforgettable opening line casts a (relatively unsuccessful) pall over that picture, Gaichu finds nooks and crannies of desperation and depression that Sam Mendes has nightmares about.
Sachiko (Tomie: The Forbidden Fruit's Aoi Miyazaki) is a twelve-year-old public school student in modern-day Japan. As the movie opens, we see her mother attempting suicide. You can tell this is not going to be a happy film, though there's an undeniable streak of (very, very) black comedy running through it; it makes the anger and outrage all the more piquant. What Shiota and writer Kiyono Yayoi (who, it seems, has never written another screenplay) are trying to get across in this slice-of-life drama is the almost complete indifference of Japanese society toward schoolgirls, or so it seemed to me; Sachiko is wrapped up in her own problems, yes, but the insular world of the schoolgirls is the lynchpin in the movie's most startling scene (and one I'll talk about at length in a few minutes). Adults exist in this movie, and some of them even try, in their ineffectual ways, to reach out to Sachiko (the movie's most notable face, Audition's Eihi Shiina, is one of them), but when the day is over, they have only themselves upon which to rely.
The scene I talked about earlier is absolutely stunning, and says a great deal about why it is that Japan's filmmakers keep blowing us Americans away when we make the same kinds of movies. Sachiko is alone in the house with her mom's boyfriend of the week, who wanders into the kitchen with a roll of duct tape. He smiles at Sachiko. She looks a bit uncomfortable, but smiles back. He looks away, at the wall, at the corner. The roll of duct tape is constantly in the scene. He looks back at her, still smiling. It all sounds pedestrian when I write it out like that, but the scene's composition is phenomenal; the tension just keeps building, because the viewer has no idea what's going on with this guy. There are no words in the entire scene (the movie, in fact, has very little dialogue throughout); everything is conveyed through facial expression and camera angle. And, of course, Shiota's insistence on keeping our eyes glued to that roll of duct tape.
Gaichu is a very tough movie to get ahold of if you happen to be in the west; worse, no official DVD release of it contains English subtitles. They can be found at subtitle sites, with the translation done by fans, if you have an all-region DVD player in your computer and are willing to pay the insane shipping costs to buy it straight from Japan. That said, in my opinion, Gaichu is well worth whatever the cost, especially if you're an American Beauty fan; while there's not much of a comparison to be actually made between the two films, I can certainly see AB's fanbase going gaga over this one. And rightly so; it's a fantastic piece of work. Do whatever you must to see this. **** 1/2
Tout de meme, j'ai trouve ce film un peu long, avec une histoire qui peine un peu a se mettre en place. Certaine scene semblent catapulte au gres des envies du realisateurs sans pour autant reelement servir le scenario. Quant aux acteurs, j'avoue avoir vraiment beaucoup de mal avec leur facon de jouer, trop expressif/theatral a mon gout.
Tout fois le bilan n'est pas si catastrophique car il ressort de se film une sorte de sincerite. Les malheurs de Sachiko nous touchent et nous tiennent en haleine tout au long du film. L'amitie qu'elle lie avec les deux marginaux intriguent, d'ailleurs c'est au moment ou elle les rencontrent que le film commence a devenir plus interessant selon moi. Et, je n'arrive toujours pas a savoir si j'aime ou pas la fin, car c'est une bien etrange fin quelque part entre la fin tragique et la fin en queue de poisson.
Synopsis: Sachiko Kita (Miyazaki) is an early teen struggling with problems at home along with school coping it all by congregating with new found friends giving her a different and more comfortable ease of absentmindedness. However, she finds herself getting in-too-deep within the atmosphere she seems to inhabit and attempts to find a fresh living from that lifestyle in her already broken world.
This looks like a coming of age film with a twist-of-fate and some serious family dilemmas that gives it all a taste of good movie storytelling. Akihiko Shiota shoots it like moving clouds with some fine-tuned scenes and concise channels of communication that can keep you snuggled on your couch. The Writer Kiyono Yayoi (only movie he wrote for on his resume) puts together something so interesting it almost made it seem as if the story could go on forever, and Yu Aoi (Hula Girls, All About Lily Chou-Chou) Natsuko - her first role in a movie - does just as good as Miyazaki.
As for disapproval (if any) is that the film is very slow paced with little dialogue as if going threw a gallery of images from an artist's portfolio, and the ending seems like it was readying itself for a sequel or another 92 minutes of arms crossed till it's numb. Set aside from the not so much as bad, it looks something close to "special" was made and if you happen to be a big fan of Serial Experiments Lain, you'll most enjoy this laidback intrigue.
While away from school, Sachiko is the topic of gossip not only because her mom tried to commit suicide, that she has no father, and that she skips school, but that it is also believed that she had a ‚??special‚?? relationship with a teacher of hers when she was in sixth grade. The only person to come to her defense is her classmate Natsuko, but with the gossip, family problems, and being involved with a hustler, can there be any brightness in Sachiko‚??s future.
I have wanted to watch Harmful Insect for a few years since I learned of it soon after watching Iwai Shunji‚??s film All About Lily Chou Chou. While maybe not the tour de force of Iwai‚??s film, Shiota‚??s film might be considered even darker than Iwai‚??s film. In All About Lily Chou Chou adults, parents, teachers, and police, are clueless with the difficulties faced by a number of young students, but in Harmful Insect, adults are generally the cause of much of the trouble. Sachiko is a troubled girl, but because her mother is so wrapped up in her own problems, Sachiko has no one else to turn to and her life becomes more dark and bleak. Also, Sachiko is a victim. She is victimized by lecherous men, a suicidal mother, etc., but even in the confines of the school which she eventually returns to the gossip is so thick and the feeling that it is her fault for being the victim that there I no comfort offered her there.
Filmed in muted colors with an emphasis on the cold and sterile urban landscape, Harmful Insect makes for a bleak film experience with sparks of beauty. A good companion film to Iwai‚??s seminal film, it is a pity that this film is not available to a wider audience.