Boy Sprouted (Japan, 2021) [OAFF 2022/Short Shorts Film Festival and Asia 2022]

A battle of wills between a boy (Seitaro Hara) who dislikes tomatoes and his mother (Kanako Higashi) who is determined to make him to get over his aversion to them takes on epic proportions in the funny short film Boy Sprouted thanks to the visually arresting direction of Yuko Watanabe.

Building on a simple story from a script generated by an AI named “FURUKOTO,” Watanabe craftily brings a fairy tale-like menace to her depiction of the relatively harmless everyday occurrence of fussy eating. This is achieved by the way she simply holds attention on tomatoes and brings notice to them through their repeated presence to make viewers suspicious of them in ways that lead to fun payoffs. Indeed, by emphasising them at every turn, her visual compositions rope the viewer into the mind of a kid who feels under siege by tomatoes. Whether the main character is at the dinner table, his school desk, or walking past a tomato farm, the red fruit is constantly nearby. They are often being handled by characters, while there is the reoccurring sight of the mother and other kids eating them. Their sheer abundance gives one the sense that the people in this world have a tomato obsession or are even part of a tomato worshipping cult.

Having their blood-red colour pop off the screen makes the tomatoes stand out effectively. Watanabe provides plenty of close-ups and long takes of their variations so that one gets more than familiar with their many textures and shapes, not to mention the icky purée that gets made. Red-colored lighting and costumes/props, and a menacing score that sounds like an electronic throb, are often used to add a sense of oppressiveness. Then there is the deliberately accentuated sound of the mother mulching tomatoes, often with an extreme close-up of her tomato-smeared lips and utensils, which really makes one feel queasy. In one sequence, there is a tomato-eyed perspective shot as a tray full of them is carried into the little boy’s classroom, suggesting they are some animating force or a sinister delivery mechanism. Touches of body horror emerge as shoots sprout from the boy. Is he turning into a tomato because of them? Is this an Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario?

Horror aficionados will get a lot out of this as they will be reminded of Kubrick’s works, what with the little boy protagonist and the precise camerawork. Those into pulpier fare will trace the body horror to the Stephen King section of George A. Romero’s horror anthology Creepshow (1982). By the end of Boy Sprouted, however, viewers will be laughing rather than horrified once it becomes apparent that an atmosphere of dread has been used to evoke the fixation that the boy has on the fruit.

Watanabe demonstrates strength as a director by creating this strong atmosphere so that the boy’s fixation takes hold on the viewer and creates an odd counterpoint to an innocent story. Through the techniques of repetition and focusing attention on tomatoes, Watanabe makes the mundane become menacing through symbolism which links the boy’s reactions and the abundance of tomatoes to ideas more sinister than the reality of a child being picky with their food. Thus, laughter occurs in experiencing and understanding the bathos that Watanabe is mining from the dissonance found between story and tone.

This short is fun to experience, while kids and parents can watch it together while appreciating it from different perspectives. Watanabe’s control of the material and her design choices brilliantly subvert a rather innocent story, making it into something new, showing that she has the talent to tackle feature projects.

Boy Sprouted was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 17. It will next be screened as part of the Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia 2022, which will be held from June 7 to June 20 in cinemas, and also online from April 28 to June 30.