A raw, artless, painful scream of a film, written and directed by someone who, when he started on the screenplay, was a nineteen-year-old hikikomori.
"Hikikomori" literally means "pulling inwards" and effectively means "cutting yourself off from society". Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare defines it as someone who won't leave their house and hence cuts themselves off from the outside world for more than six months. Crucially, a hikikomori doesn't think there's anything wrong with them. They're not staying indoors because they're mentally ill. They just don't want to go out. They usually don't have a job and are supported financially by their parents, despite often being in their thirties or even forties.
Hikikomori-like people have lately been identified in France, Canada and the USA, but it's a Japanese phenomenon. Great pressure is put on children there to succeed, e.g. "juku" is private schooling which many children do as much of as their regular school hours. (That's on top of, not instead of.) Parents and society in general impose expectations that in some cases won't be met, after Japan's "lost decades" economically. Someone might withdraw after social or academic failure. They might be struggling with the difference between their honne (real feelings) and tatemae (socially acceptable feelings for public consumption), which in Japan is of paramount importance. It might be a form of rebellion. Someone might be too much of an independent thinker, or else might simply believe themselves to be so.
Nakajima was a hikikomori, although he clearly got over it. The story he's written is about young people who've rejected the paths chosen for them by society and are capable of murder, suicide, bullying, gang rape and making bombs to be detonated in a crowd. It's also a 92-minute cinematic thesis from the inside on all the feelings and motivations I've just been talking about.
There are three main characters.
1. Bully #1 gets his jollies persecuting an awkward boy who might be mentally retarded. "What's the point in you being alive?" His mother doesn't know that he doesn't go to school. His father is only seen once, as a wreck lying on the sofa being ignored by everyone. You'd think he was just another hooligan, but in fact he's so disaffected from the world and from his own future that it would only take a small push to have him killing a bunch of strangers. (In America this involves automatic weapons, but Japan's gun laws mean that there it's more likely to be a man going nuts in Akihabara with a knife.)
2. Bully #2 might seem indistinguishable from Bully #1, but he's not. Both are massively self-destructive. Both hang out together and kill time doing the same things. However Bully #2 is more self-delusional and conflicted. He's screwed up, basically. He thinks wage slaves are the living dead (e.g. his father), while at the same time having massive self-esteem issues for being rejected from a thousand job interviews. When a friend says he's going to become a civil servant, Bully #2 regards this as the end of his life as a human being. "I want to go out and start a revolution." There's a seed inside him that wants to do the right thing and make a success of his life, but it's buried under twin rocks of contempt for society and himself.
3. The Girl hangs out with the bullies and encourages them to kill people. She also urges their victims to kill the bullies. She's an equal-opportunity nihilist.
These are appalling people. The nearest any of them comes to displaying a redeeming feature is the scene where Bully #2 doesn't want to participate in a gang rape. (He does in the end, though. Peer pressure, dang it.) If you can't stomach unlikeable protagonists, run from this film as if it's radioactive.
However at the same time, Nakajima takes you to a place where their behaviour almost seems like the rational response to the world. He understands where they're coming from. Bully #1's mother is shocked to learn that he's not playing truant and is trying hard to make him face reality, but it's as if her words are building a wall between the two of them. "You're nothing special. You're second rate. If you don't choose an ordinary life, you'll end up a loser." Hilariously, she asks him if he's being bullied at school. Their schoolteacher too isn't saying anything you too wouldn't want to say to these boys, but he's the kind of person who'll push into the toilets and grab your face to make you say what he wants you to say. "Go on, say it. I'm weak. I'm worthless."
Note for instance that these teenagers aren't hedonists. They don't take drugs, which would probably be unthinkable in a version of this film from almost any other filmmaker. They don't have casual sex. (Well, not consensual, anyway.) They don't smoke and they don't even really drink. Nakajima is allowing us no cheap excuses for their behaviour. They're destroying themselves while sober, with their eyes open. All the usual lectures to "think about your future", etc... they hardly think of anything else! That's why they're doing all this! This film debates it obsessively, with every single character providing another angle on the central question of the meaning of your life when you've stepped off the edge.
It's no anarchist screed, either. Nakajima knows that the ordinary life so despised by Bully #2 means working hard to support your family and bring up your children. Characters say so, forcefully. Our anti-heroes are aware of this, too.
Stylistically, it's raw. It's done with handheld cameras, often lurching around, and near-monochrome footage with no attempt to control light levels. This bleached, desert-like colour palette is the visual equivalent of what Nakajima's saying in the script. As for the actors, most of whom never acted in anything else, they don't seem to be acting. (That's a compliment.) There are several scenes that I was convinced were just Nakajima sneaking into a party and capturing real life.
He also uses lots of classical music.
It begins with footage from 9-11. It's a portrait of misery, but oddly it's not depressing. It's got too much anger for that. Other interesting things include the way that the film quickly loses interest in victims, yet is very clear that consequences will flow from any action. People don't get off scot free. Some of the offenders in this film are shocked to get into trouble for what they did (e.g. trying to tell A WOMAN that she was an accomplice in the rape), but what these self-destructive people are doing to their own futures is what the film is all about.
Nakajima has directed two more films to date (neither written by him), one of which sounds like formulaic pap and the other one is about giving children a detonator that will kill them and waiting to see how long it takes for them to commit suicide. It's called When I Kill Myself, but even so I'm sure Nakajima will never make anything else like this. It won three awards at the Pia Film Festival in Japan. It's shouting in a voice that always gets ignored. It's special.