Noise (Japan, 2017)
Noise is the heartfelt debut feature film from Yusaku Matsumoto. It’s set in Akihabara, the district of Tokyo where anime, idol, and game culture meet. The story finds its origins in the 2008 Akihabara Massacre. Aged 16 at the time of the incident, Matsumoto conducted research into the reasons people commit mass-killings. He concluded that a myriad of problems create killers and there are no simple answers, something he aims to show with Noise. Indeed, while shooting, he went even further with his line of investigation and worked with everyone on set to create a narrative made up of different ideas and emotions about the negative factors of life. The final result is a complex film which uses the lives of three young people drawn to Akihabara as a canvas to paint a picture of the problems with contemporary Japanese society, exploring issues such as the breakdown of the family unit, exploitation, debt, and violence. This approach leads to fractured narrative that manages to illustrate a comprehensive vision of the bleak reality for those caught at the bottom of society
The film is an ensemble piece that follows a group of characters over the course of a few days. The focus is mostly on budding blonde-haired idol Misa (portrayed by real-life idol Kokoro Shinozaki, Miss iD 2015 and formerly of idol group petit pas!). Misa’s connection with Akihabara is deep since her mother died in the massacre. The shockwaves of her senseless death shook Misa’s life apart and made worse her already bad relationship with her controlling and abusive father. With few people she connects with, she now seeks to be an idol with the group LUUKA to get closer to the spirit of her mother but an idol’s life is tough and work on the underground idol circuit doesn’t pay so she doubles up as a worker in a massage parlour but as her career ebbs and flows, her grief remains and she becomes disorientated from those around her who are also struggling with debt and grief.
Meanwhile, another girl with hair dyed blonde, Rie Yamamoto (portrayed by another real-life idol, Urana Anjo of Otome Brave), doesn’t care about her neglectful father Kanji who spends his time either in work or looking after his sick father. Rie skips high-school to hang out with her feckless boyfriend. When she isn’t at an arcade, her eyes are constantly glued to her phone. Her life is unfulfilling but when Kanji strikes up a relationship with Misa because she reminds him of Rie, the relationship between father and daughter deteriorates further until she totally disconnects from him.
The third main character is Ken (Kosuke Suzuki), a lonely delivery man with Fukumoto delivery. He seems stable at first, a tight-lipped hard worker who doesn’t slack off like his idol-loving colleague. He tries to study and better himself whilst giving his pay to his mother who is deep in debt to Yakuza. However he is deepy troubled, a would-be killer inspired by the man who committed the Akihabara Massacre. It seems like it will only be a matter of time before he blows and tries to take people with him and it isn’t long before thugs pay him a visit and he seeks to turn his anger on the city.
All three suffer overlapping problems that show a complex chain of insecurities in the family unit, employment, and their community with the lack of money and love constantly poisoning relationships. The film effortlessly piles on narrative details showing how each character is affected by tenuous social connections which grow increasingly frayed when pressures from society come into the picture. Matsumoto allows their stories to breathe with secondary characters, often neglectful parents or concerned on-lookers, given a chance to speak and show their motivations and backgrounds.
The viewer constantly finds out more as backstories are intercut with the present-tense narrative. Fragments at first. Things out of place. Shakey shots on hand-held cameras. A scene connected to the massacre. Further into the narrative, the fragments lengthen and connect. They add details to the world so we have a better understanding. By the end, we have a comprehensive study of people blighted by loneliness and further disconnection which has been cultivated by negative forces in society and we have explanations for the tragedy of families falling apart.
Dialogue, or the lack of it, reinforces the growing tragedy in every scene. Despite the many opportunities to connect with others, there is always the sense of artificiality and insincerity in interactions or a purposeful avoidance and retreat into fantasy. When it comes time to talking about serious issues, the dialogue is depressingly empty or conversations are curtailed by an irritated person all of which shows the characters’ inability to express themselves until it leads to potential disaster. Meanwhile, the whole showbusiness side of Akihabara continues unabated.
If three dense narratives sounds like a mess, it all fits together thanks to the visual and aural landscape presented on screen. The soundtrack is littered with J-pop and the electronica of Banvox that provides an anthem for doomed youth while all three characters navigate a bleak urban space characterised by washed-out visuals and contrasting run-down residential areas and glitzier areas along the main road, the game centres and stores are shown along with the messy homes and dull delivery depots, the quiet spots where homeless congregate, the cramped down-at-heel venues where idols perform dances in cheap costumes and the photo studios where potential idols can have their careers made and innocence taken. These are the crushingly mundane sides of Tokyo not often seen by tourists. This duality dovetails nicely with the lives of the characters. Behind the seemingly quiet or glossy exteriors are people coming from dark places. A whole interconnected world is created and everything gives the sense that each character exists in the same place and could just be around the corner from each other – and they often are just ready to crash as the tension reaches its height.
If there is a downside, it is that while stylistically it works itself up to a fever-pitch, the script gives all this tension nowhere to go. Despite all the shakey-cam and cross-cutting between crises, the story ends with so much left to cover. People are forgotten about as plot threads are left dangling. It just ends. Perhaps the messy ending is reflective of real life. You can imagine the characters either sinking to the bottom of society or finding the power to rise to the top. We just have to imagine and that’s easy enough to do since characters are well-drawn and acted – plaudits go to Kokoro Shinozaki who essays a complex character carrying the weight of years of loneliness and grief behind her cute exterior. At the end audiences will care and will want to know what happens to these characters.
Considering that Noise is a debut film, it does well to capture the swirling complexities of life. These characters face a myriad of problems and there are no easy answers. Matsumoto ably taps into the idea that reality is far more scarier than any horror movie and crafts a hard-edged story where innocent young lives are blighted by the crushing weight of an unforgiving society. It is a fine debut that suggests brilliance potentially lies ahead for Matsumoto.