Roar (Japan, 2020) [JAPAN CUTS 2020]

Ryo Katayama’s debut feature Roar is the kind of examination of social frustration which has become a staple of Japan’s indie cinema right down having a pair of outsiders subsisting on convenience store pastries. By design, Roar is a tough sit with its cross-section of depressed characters and a rather directionless second act in which anything that happens does so very slowly. However, Katayama has clearly put a lot of thought into how to convey a sense of oppression so it’s perhaps to his credit that some viewers will be desperate to escape this seemingly hopeless landscape around the halfway mark.

The film takes place in the coastal city of Fukui where two people find their lives shaped by violence. After his older brother is arrested for murder and his father commits suicide, Makato (Ryo Anraku) runs away from home to lead a nomadic existence away from the shame of family scandal. Wandering the back alleys at night, he encounters the mysterious, scraggly haired Manabu (Katayama) who literally scrapes a living by beating people up on request. Makato is oddly drawn to the silent Manabu and becomes his sidekick while trying to learn more about what has led him down this path.

Meanwhile, radio host Hiromi (Mie Ota) is trapped in an affair with her lecherous married boss Nomura (Shoji Omiya) who not only forces himself on her when their colleagues are out at lunch but expects her to perform public sex acts for his perverted satisfaction. His possessive tendencies become more pronounced when Hiromi starts dating Kentaro (Takuya Nakayama), who has recently returned to Fukui from Tokyo for family reasons.

The second-tier status of Fukui is evoked whenever Tokyo comes up in conversation as the capital is comparatively positioned as a place for pursuing career advancement or independence, but Katayama is not necessarily critiquing the specific surroundings. Rather, they become emblematic of a wider Japanese society wherein people feel helpless to challenge deeply entrenched cultural codes or rigid power structures. As such, location choices are nondescript with much implied by lighting and colour. In the largely nocturnal Makato strand, which often plays as social realism by way of film noir, brutal acts of violence occur in darkened back alleys or underpasses with Manabu a shadowy facilitator of vengeance and Makato seeking refuge in the darkness. Horimi’s strand is brightly lit but the warmth of radio station and the establishments she frequents socially feels artificial, much like her upbeat persona. As an extension of her manufactured cheerfulness, she drives a snazzy red car but the vehicle is enveloped in gloomy grey when captured in wide shot by the water on an overcast day. The colour of her car also blatantly signifies the suppressed anger she will need to unleash to decisively take control of her life.

Roar is most interesting from a compositional standpoint as it begins with a flurry of attention grabbing point of view shots which put the viewer uncomfortably in the position of Makato’s ill-fated brother Tadashi. This opening sequence delivers veritable jolt of frustration as in succinct fashion it runs through a series of disappointments and parental judgment, culminating in shocking tragedy. After that, there is an emphasis on the repetition of events over escalation as the film blends distanced static compositions with some handheld camerawork to show characters trapped in patterns of behaviour from which they must strive to find a way out. However, we often subtly enter Makato’s point of view as he watches Manabu, evidently seeing him as a substitute for the brother that he could not save but still left to observe as he is still painfully unsure of how to redeem himself through timely intervention.

The two main story strands briefly overlap in terms of screen space and provide contrasting responses to oppressive circumstances (depression/empowerment). Yet the weight of the film’s set of issues does beg the question of whether Katayama could have explored these characters in separate features. A glimpse at Kentaro’s family situation feels extraneous and tedium sets in at times given that the film is thematically treading overly familiar indie territory. If Katayama falters with storytelling and pacing, he’s good with actors as the performances have a certain intensity while his decision to cast himself as the tortured vagrant suggests he wants to go the Shinya Tsukamoto route with his career. On the whole, Roar is an uncompromising debut yet one that is prone to interminable passages which prevent if from achieving sheer ferocity.

Roar is streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30.