My Friend ‘A’ (Japan, 2018) [Japan Foundation Film Tour 2019]

After sensitively refuting prejudice towards the porn industry with The Lowlife (2017), prolific veteran filmmaker Takahisa Zeze now turns his attention to the scorn that continues to be aimed to criminals even after their debt to society has ostensibly been paid and asks when enough is enough. Adapted from a novel by Gaku Yakumaru, the rather unwieldy My Friend A is less successful in conveying its humanistic perspective than The Lowlife since its social canvas crucially lacks the connective tissue afforded by a shared industry.

We first encounter Hideto Suzuki (Eita) and Junichi Masuda (Toma Ikuta) as they start apprenticeships at a suburban factory. At first glance, they seem like ordinary young me who just need the opportunity to earn a decent living, but after they move into the factory dormitory, Suzuki exhibits odd behavior. He says little and avoids his co-workers by going out early and coming home when they have turned in for the night. Most disturbingly, he suffers from nightmares stemming from a crime committed at the age of 14. Still troubled by an incident from his childhood, Masuda befriends Suzuki. A former journalist who quit the profession after one of his articles had unintended consequences, he begins writing an article about Suzuki, although remains ambivalent about publishing it.

When a child murder occurs in the region, Masuda suspects that Suzuki is responsible, although his new friend is now socializing and become romantically involved with quiet customer services worker Miyoko (Kaho) after rescuing her from the clutches of an abusive ex-boyfriend. Additional strands concern taxi driver Shuji Yamauchi (Koichi Sato), who is still paying compensation for crimes committed by his then-teenage son, and Yayoi Shiraishi (Yasuko Tomita), a detention facility counselor who treated Suzuki. Her steadfast belief in the rehabilitation process means that she refuses to accept that Suzuki may have reoffended, although commitment to the profession has come at the cost of her family’s happiness. There’s enough pain here to fill (or flood) a mini-series.

Despite the two-hour running time and Zeze’s admirable decision to have key scenes play out in a naturalistic manner, My Friend A often feels condensed with confusion about the connection (or lack of) between certain characters preventing it from pulling the viewer in. There are loose similarities with such recent multi-stranded Japanese crime dramas as Lee Sang-il’s Rage (2016) and Daihachi Yoshida’s The Scythian Lamb (2017) although Zeze is not particularly invested in the mystery angle. Instead, the child murder is instead used to trigger an investigation of related social attitudes that interrogate how friendships are redefined when knowledge of past behavior comes to light, how those who have made mistakes are conditioned to prepare for rejection, and how the weight of shame culture (a family being held responsible for the negative conduct of one of its members) is almost too much to bear. It’s a sincere effort in all respects, but the nagging sense of contrivance is hard to shake. “Like me, you never unpack your bag,” comments Suzuki when Masuda tentatively tries to develop a rapport. Shared anguish is one thing, but the specific causes here are just too similar for the developing friendship, and Masuda’s ensuing dilemma, to ring true.

Nonetheless, Zeze elicits a riveting performance from Eita, which illustrates how Suzuki is torn between committing to becoming the person he wants to be and the person society expects him to still be, one who is undeserving of human connection. Around the mid-point, Suzuki joyously participates in a karaoke session with his co-worker; later, he’s repentantly smacking himself in the head with a rock. Eita commits to both extremes with a consistent level of intensity, creating a character who necessarily exists largely in his own world but without feeling overly mannered or studied. The rest of the class is solid, particularly the ever reliable Sato, while the ubiquitous Kanji Furutachi turns up as a newspaper editor who cites the public’s right to information as a means of justifying a potentially harmful story.

Aside from its palpable emotional outbursts, My Friend ‘A’ finds Zeze in restrained mood with solemnity established from the outset by Atsuhiro Nabeshima’s muted cinematography and Yoshihiro Hanno’s low-key score. He may not be on peak form here, but his approach yields compelling stretches of observation that are markedly the work of a director who has never been afraid of a challenge.

My Friend ‘A’ is part of the Japan Foundation Film Touring Programme 2019, which is showing at selected UK venues from February 2 to March 28.