To be perfectly honest, I actually didn’t want to review Hime-anole. Not because it’s bad, as it is far from it. I didn’t want to review Hime-anole because I didn’t want to spoil any of its major events. Because revealing said plot points can rob such films of their power. Having said that, this film is such a surprise that it could end up being on of my 2016 top 10 list.
Keisuke Yoshida has been a director that has, for the most part, made films that can be seen as pleasant as well as quite powerful. Films like the slice-of-life drama Cafe Isobe (2008), his tragic-comedy My Little Sweet Pea (2013), and even the manga adaptation Silver Spoon (2010) are entertaining pieces, although some are quite forgettable. His first feature, however, was a pinku film called Raw Summer (2005) with former AV star Sora Aoi. Despite its exploitation trappings, the film ended up transcending its origins with substantial character explorations within its voyeuristic plot. Having recalled the latter, it did make me wonder if Yoshida would ever go back to those types of films that delved into darker subject matter. Now, we have Hime-anole, a live-action adaptation of a manga by Minoru Furuya, whose Himizu (2001-2002) was filmed by Sion Sono in 2011.
Hime-anole starts off uneventfully with barely-present assistant cleaner Okada (Gaku Hamada) making a mistake at work and being criticized by his superior. This is when his straightforward colleague Ando (Tsuyoshi Muro) backs him up and the two become better acquainted. Ando then tells Okada about his strong love for Yuka (Aimi Satsukawa), a waitress at a coffee shop whom he has never said a word to. Because of Ando supporting him earlier, Okada feels obligated to help his new friend win the girl of his dreams. But things get a little slippery when they find that a stranger (Go Morita) is apparently stalking Yuka, so the two help Yuka to avoid the stalker, although Ando has ulterior motives to woo Yuka. But as feelings develop into something more intimate and motivations become a little clearer, the characters soon end up with a little more than they bargained for.
The acting here is top-notch. Hamada can play his hang-dog sympathy act in his sleep and it would still entertain me. In this film, he plays a character with a little bit more inner conflict and he portrays that well, particularly when the film enters its second act. Muro is surprisingly sympathetic, despite the character’s actions towards achieving his version of true love. His stern honesty and chemistry with Hamada make him endearingly likable. Satsukawa does the cute and quiet act with such ease that it makes it easy for the audience to understand why Ando would fall for her. As for Morita as the stalker, this is his film. That’s all I will say about him.
Yoshida’s direction is incredibly assured, considering his past films, which never evidenced a particularly tight rein. The first act has a sense of warmth that makes its humour and characters stand out, even with Morita in the background. When the story gradually enters the second act, the film becomes more substantial as the characters are gradually explored, notably in a scene where a friend of Yuka’s rudely and insistently judges Okada and Ando as a pair of losers. The genre Hime-anole adheres to is soon turned on its head and gets beaten to a bloody pulp – characters get more emotionally depraved; motivations become crystal clear; and this is when Morita steals the film.
The production values are great, especially the music score and the editing. The cinematography is also interesting as shots start off static and gradually become more hand-held when the depravity sets in. The film is also refreshingly free of CGI, which is becoming a major hindrance in cinematic storytelling. How can you get into the story if you notice something extremely fake? Hime-anole has very little of that and is immersive in its intent from the get-go.
To say any more about this film would be a disservice so I’ll just state that Hime-anole is one of the biggest surprises of the year for me and I highly recommend it to those who are adventurous and seek the unexpected. With fantastic performances, subtly unhinged direction from Yoshida, and a refreshing lack of adherence towards mainstream storytelling, Hime-anole is a cult classic in the making.
P.S – Did I note that the film was rated R-15 in Japan? I probably should’ve mentioned it earlier.
Hime-anole is showing as part of Japanese Film Festival Australia which runs from October 14 to December 4. See the festival website for screening times and venues.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-Momatic Reviews.