Amiko (Japan, 2017) [JAPAN CUTS 2018]

Amiko is the directorial debut of Yoko Yamanaka, a twenty-year-old from Nagano whose indie film not only won the Audience Award and Hikari TV Award at the Pia Film Festival 2017, but was also featured at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. Its tale of a girl’s experience in love is a universal one but unique because of its central character, a firecracker of a person who is effortlessly entertaining.

Pity those who are pure of heart for when it comes to love they are going to encounter some disappointments. Somewhere in Nagano, 16-year-old Amiko (Aira Sunohara) is about to get crushed. She is a high school girl who has many charm points for a disaffected teenager: admirably mischievous, lovably precocious, highly self-aware, and eager to be sincere. These emotions swirl underneath her placid surface in uneven doses and she finds an outlet when she falls in love with Naoya Aomi (Hiroto Oshita), a handsome guy on the football team.

This love came about during a long winter’s walk together one evening. They traveled from their school, over a hill, to Nagano’s city centre. They spoke from the heart about various things from Radiohead to conforming to expectations. He plays football, even though he dislikes it because “it’s easier to live being told what to do”, while she nihilistically wonders why anybody does anything. He seems to understand that Amiko and her best-friend Kanako (Maiko Mineo) are also wearing false masks when dealing with society. He also said he thinks she’s smart. That’s a declaration of love as far as Amiko is concerned. She has found her soulmate in her dull life. He is someone who, like her, seems to be operating at a higher level of awareness than most others who are merely conformists like the school’s prettiest girl and social-media star, Mizuki (Ayu Hasegawa) who has gone to Tokyo to attend university.

Alas, our boy Naoya may be cool and smart but he’s still just a teen and learning about himself. Perhaps confusion explains his half-year-long silence towards Amiko, something she just about copes with. It is his sudden disappearance that has her worried. Where could he be, the love of her life? Then Amiko finds out that Naoya headed to Tokyo together with Miyako, Amiko’s soulless antithesis. It’s certainly more than confusion – it’s a disaster! Amiko absolutely needs to find out what made Naoya do this!

As far as films about love gone awry go this acerbic gem feels fresh and new because it is shot with a jazzy verve dictated by our girl Amiko’s personality, sometimes turbulent and capricious, sometimes laser focussed and unremitting. Her actions make the narrative a freewheeling adventure as the simple plot deconstructs the realities of love for people establishing their personalities.

Amiko’s mind, body, and personality are written brilliantly by Yoko Yamanaka and acted so well by Sunohara that the entire film is enveloped by her energy. The camera is entirely subjective as it mirrors her sudden rushes of emotion and tracks the actions she performs.

Yoko Yamanaka infuses every shot with the colour of Amiko’s emotions and ideas. The push of the camera into Amiko’s face after Naoya compliments her, well, the camera is not so much moved as jammed into Sunohara’s grin and eyes which express joy. We feel the urgent beat of her heart and the rush of joy. When Sunohara cycles towards the camera in a backward tracking shot midway through the film, her power and determination to recapture Naoya are evident. She could move mountains. When she enters Tokyo to find her lost love, we follow her from high angled shots and forward tracking shots into the densely populated city, the camera circling around her face as she exits Ikebukuro station. She is out of her depth. When she stalks her prey through Tokyo, she is often shot from a low angle and seen doing something hilarious or there are menacing point-of-view shots. It’s the close-ups that are the killer as Sunohara communicates her character’s tumultuous emotions to the audience from joy to disillusion, and when narration segues into Sunohara talking directly to the camera, it breaks the fourth wall and makes this as personal as possible.

Slowly, Amiko learns from Naoya’s betrayal that ideals are something we aspire to and give us direction rather than inherent in a person’s character which is always subject to change. Leading to this realisation are the wonderful questions. What will she do? Where will she go? What does she hope to accomplish? The film delves into this while adding, how unhinged is she?

Romance makes us do crazy things and sometimes it’s entertaining to watch as it is here with this wonderfully off-kilter film and its leading lady. Adults will smile and cringe as they recognise life lessons and there are plenty of times when they will laugh. Most importantly, we come to care about the titular character and love it when she dictates the terms of every scene. Amiko is definitely one to watch while Yamanaka and her lead actress Sunohara should prove to be exciting talents to look out for in the future.

Amiko is showing on July 29 at JAPAN CUTS.