Naturalistic acting, specifically using pastel colours and lovingly shot images of the sea are what dictate the ebb and flow of the drama in Yuho Ishibashi’s film Sayounara. Originally based on an SNS manga of the same name by the artist Gomen, Ishibashi took four characters and a few frames of the original and expanded its world to create a coming-of-age tale that is familiar in so many elements and yet a good example of a textured exploration of one person coming to terms with grief as life carries on around her.
The muted visual tone of the film matches the temperament of the main protagonist of the film, high school student Yuki (Haruka Imou), a quiet girl who lives in a sleepy coastal town. The loudest noises are those of the waves of the sea and the laughter she shares with her best friend Aya (Kirara Inori), a cryptic girl who is soon to leave town. Their friendship is strong and a kiss snatched by Aya opens up all sorts of emotions in Yuki. Tragedy strikes when Aya commits suicide. In response, Yuki dives deep into herself and turns away from any turbulent emotions. Her classmates are also caught in the ripples of the event and react differently, some showing respect while others spread rumours.
The narrative floats along as Yuki finds herself coming up against class bullies led by one particularly vicious girl named Yuka (Nanami Hidaka), a true representation of a vile queen bee who takes exception to Yuki’s withdrawn nature. Their conflict is mostly Yuki suffering being ostracised with some testy physical encounters but it takes in the whole class and even Aya as we see how everyone labours under Yuka’s influence and the fallout from the death allows everyone to reset their positions and re-examine their lives in a fairly quiet way or, in the case of a fellow classmate named Keita (Amon Hirai) who is in love with Yuki, reach out before it’s too late.
There are no melodramatic fireworks, this is a group of students and the occasional adult navigating social situations by trying to maintain some sort of facade so everything will go smoothly even if they are hurting inside or afraid of being bullied or simply trying to study and worried about disruption. Yuki is the biggest actor of all, seemingly being in a near depressive state at times but really just being distant. Audiences will see through everything and wonder when the false image will break but the atmosphere remains subdued and quiet.
The narrative broadens out to include many characters, not originally in the manga. Ishibashi scripted the new characters, complete with backstories, to extend the story and she carefully picked actors, many new talents, who could bring the characters to life. She allowed them to deliver lines and scenes in their own style to make things as naturalistic as possible, which fits in with the subtle visual style.
The film is made up of small events that culminate in something better. There are tentative romantic overtures, worries about tests, jockeying for position in the school’s pecking order and arranging meetings at live shows and each interaction inspires some sort of reaction as people in the social group watch and change their interpretation of individuals. We get a sense of observing real teens through some excellent camera movement where the camera floats around the classroom and catches the students as they look on. We are aware they surround Yuki and buffet her somewhat, but the focus is on her own mind state as she rises and falls along with the sound of the waves that is constantly awash over the soundtrack and through interacting with them and through examining herself, Yuki gradually emerges from her stupor.
Ishibashi’s script astutely relays the dynamics of the class and community and captures the sense of Yuki’s distance from death which is gradually closed until she is made her face the world and deal with her grief with sincerity, a moment told in a montage of shots taken from earlier scenes that allows some emotional relief that loops back to that kiss Aya stole.
This title is another quiet school story set in Japan but the film’s aesthetics, its ethereal visuals and emotional journey makes this a textured examination of grief. Ishibashi employs pastel visuals and many long shots and a quiet atmosphere to sensitively depict different shades of tender emotions so we can see a gradual understanding of loss. Not necessarily the most exciting thing to watch, it is a good introduction to a new generation of actors.
Sayounara was shown on March 10 and 12 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.