The Hungry Lion (Japan, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

The Hungry Lion is the fourth feature from Fukuoka-born indie filmmaker Takaomi Ogata. Each of his films addresses pressing social issues faced by modern Japan. Never Ending Blue (2011) shows a teenage girl enduring child abuse and self-abuse and was potent enough to win the Runner-up Grand Prix at the 2010 Okinawa Motion Picture Festival. Body Temperature (2011) featured the story of an intensely lonely man too focussed on a life-sized doll to make a connection with other humans. Sunk Into the Womb (2013) was about a single-mother who abandons her children. The Hungry Lion has the harrowing story of an innocent person having their reputation murdered by liars, gossipmongers, and the media.

The scandal here is a high school homeroom tutor arrested by the police for suspected child prostitution and child pornography. As the film opens, the kids are sneaking glimpses of a leaked sex video via a smartphone. It all seems like fun and games to them but one pupil in that class, the popular and friendly Hitomi Sugimoto (Urara Matsubayashi) has no idea that her life will be so drastically affected as she manages her own online persona. Somehow the rumour that Hitomi is the girl in the video starts to spread like wildfire. It’s all a lie but this is grist for the scandal mill that is the media and social networks. As the lies intensify, people in Hitomi’s life start to doubt her. First it’s classmates and her boyfriend Hiroki and then even her mother Yuko (Mariko Tsutsui). Soon, it seems it is everyone with an internet connection believes this false image of Hitomi and she finds herself powerless to control the direction events are taking.

The narrative is simple in its execution as we see the gradual warping of an individual. In telling a story like this, The Hungry Lion takes on subjects that have become prevalent since the rise of video sharing sites and SNS such as revenge porn and anonymous online bullying which makes it an extremely relevant tale for today’s times.

The central idea is that social media’s ability to connect us all can be used to isolate and destroy us especially if we are addicted to it. Ogata paints a picture of people influenced too much by online life to the detriment of reality. Herd mentality seems to reign as characters are always attached to their phone or never far from a screen: arguments and moments of malicious mockery in public spaces are usually incited by someone who has just looked at something online and others join in. Hitomi cannot even get a break at home as her family blame her for the shame she brings and Hitomi herself adds to the crushing weight of things by constantly checking her status online. There is the sense that nobody wants to question the lies or believe Hitomi. The social bonds that should support Hitomi are shown to be frayed to the point of breaking due to the way her family members and her boyfriend are so easily susceptible to the online lies and too concerned about their own reputations so it feels like victim-blaming when Hitomi’s pleas for help are met with criticism and disbelief. This leads to dire consequences since Hitomi has nowhere to turn and finds herself vulnerable to others.

Through this linear narrative arc, the power of social media seems overwhelming as the audience is let into kindhearted Hitomi’s life and see her betrayed. A knot will form in stomachs as the lies build up and we see how devices and services we take for granted can be weaponised or turned into traps. Intimacy and trust means little online where such notions can be manipulated. As this isolation and defamation occurs, the bullying Hitomi goes through escalates. Cruel taunts based on a phrase spoken in the video, graffiti and pranks are used against her, and her ruined reputation makes its way into popular culture and she is hounded everywhere she goes.

To essay the humiliation of it all, Ogata chooses to film with little fuss. Editing and shot composition are kept simple and movement in scenes is minimal save for a couple of handheld and POV shots during intimate moments between Hitomi and her boyfriend. There is also switching between recording on digital cameras and smartphone to highlight the ubiquity of recording devices and the way we consume media. People are often framed by a screen, either as part of a news report or on a phone. Takaomi’s camera is, for the most part, observing the naturalistic interactions of the characters and Hitomi’s gradual breakdown brilliantly essayed by Urara Matsubayashi who sinks from being physically outgoing and all smiles to moving like a zombie and withdrawn from events, a shadow of her former self.

The cruel sting in the tale comes at the end as Ogata critiques wider media and how it adds to this culture. If there is a message at the end of the film, it is that the media is an amoral and destructive beast that, if you get sucked into its maw, will chew you up and spit you out. Audiences will hopefully not fall for fake news and be more analytical about things and kinder to others after watching this…

The Hungry Lion is showing on June 30 at the New York Asian Film Festival.