Liverleaf (Japan, 2018) [NYAFF 2018]
Eisuke Naito’s adaptation of Rensuke Oshikiri’s cult manga Liverleaf (more popularly known as Hepatica) continues the theme he’s been exploring since his debut – high school students in extreme situations. What makes his new feature different from his former works is that this time the apocalypse is brought to a quiet town. Unfortunately, this is where also the film’s biggest weakness. Liverleaf fails to calibrate its attitude towards boredom to the conditions of the rural town. The film presents this boredom as a pretext for all the violence that occurs in the film, from bullying to murders.
Unfortunately, the young people presented in the film lack any motivation (or demotivation) for their boredom, aside from their claim of the town’s nothingness. This claim – of the town being boring because there are no malls or video rental shops – is what makes their motivation so loose. It makes it seem that they are all possibly immigrants. Nozaki’s (Anna Yamada) insecurity in the earlier part of the film seems to be more insightful and more acceptable justification of the bullying: being in a small town, all of her classmates are also close childhood friends, and her presence as a transferee threatening that harmony.
This sense of contrived boredom seems to pervade the performance. Main actors Yamada and Hiroya Shimizu are stiff for most of the running time. Directing actors isn’t Naito’s forte, as seen in his previous works, Puzzle (2014) and Litchi Hikari Club (2016), and no amount of stylishness can ever hide subpar performance by supposedly experienced actors. It is actually the first-time actors who do well in this film. Rinka Otani and Rena Ohtsuka in particular profoundly demonstrate a mixture of obsession and resentment.
Fortunately, the lapses in performances become forgivable when we look at the overall handling of the film. While it does not have the editing dynamism of Naito’s urban-set films, Liverleaf salvages itself with its art direction. Drama is blended with spectacular blood spurts over the pure whiteness of snow. The color red in this film is understood for its violence, in both an offensive and intrusive sense. Nozaki wears a blood-red jacket during the last half of the film to emphasize the kind of violence that we’ll be seeing.
The Gothic representation of red, as they are understood also in Giallo films and other thrillers deploying themes of death and revenge, plays in contrast with the whiteness of most of the locations in the film. Liverleaf brings with it a fresh approach to the tropes of the femme fatale and revenge, which are mostly associated with expressionistic noir styles. It even comes close to the then-freshness of Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence (1968), which brought the spaghetti western to a snow-covered landscape.
As much as Liverleaf is a visual treat, it also suffers from the same neglect of irony, humor, or narrative sense that marred Naito’s other works. We have here a highly skilled filmmaker when it comes to techniques, but he is nonetheless somewhat detached from the subjects of his works. With Liverleaf, the narrative lapse might also be the fault of its original material, but as transferred to the film version, the blame can also be placed on the process of its adaptation. An adaptation of Liverleaf the manga certainly suits Naito’s filmography, and it could have worked if he hadn’t treated the material as a blank piece of paper waiting to be signed with his signature.
Liverleaf is showing on July 8 at the New York Asian Film Festival.