Tuesday, August 26, 2008

[Japanese Film Festival] Harmful Insect (Gaichu)

Wherefore Art Thou?

I wonder what the English title of Harmful Insect alluded to, as I usually associate critters that do no good as pests, deserving of the right sole of boot, or that slap of a rolled up newspaper. Unless of course it referred to a couple of characters in the movie big or small, with the latter made up of lecherous men who can't wait to proposition the helpless school girl at every step of the way. Perhaps it made reference to somewhat frail creatures, who with the right tools and misguidance, able to do a lot of harm that for the particular crazed moment, they cannot comprehend the severity of their deeds.

Directed by Akihiro Shiota, Harmful Insect tells the story of a young schoolgirl Sachiko Kita (Aoi Miyazaki), whose father has mortally left her, and her suicidal mother compounding the problems that come with a broken home by her extreme mood swings, and hooking up with a boyfriend whom we know spells trouble from day one. We see that she skips school, and spends her days wandering the streets with a new found friend in a teenage delinquent, and Mr Kyuzo (Koji Ichikawa) a vagrant who is none too bright. Possibly her first real friends with whom she is able to connect, we see her happier days in a lingering, unspoken suggestion of romance, as well as a semblance of a dysfunctional family of sorts to belong to. They hang out, have fun, and even come up with dangerous though innovative ways to survive and "make a living".

Her tale can be broken into 3 acts, with the first being as described, dealing with her alienation from her proper place in society, in the school courtyard, and the second dwelling on attempts at trying to bring her back to where she belonged, thanks to the relentless efforts of her non-judgemental neighbour Natsuko (Yu Aoi), who turns out to be a pillar of strength for the girl, and her appointed guardian angel. I thought Natsuko as a character was a somewhat strong contrast to Sachiko, which you can tell from the very brief moments they interact, and even the kind of happier home that Natsuko comes from, in a scene so short, but tells a lot. And what more the act of self-sacrifice in giving up someone she loves (ok, so it might be puppy and even though debatable, you get the point) just to ensure that her friend finds some balance in her life, and to having someone else look out for her too.

But Sachiko's Miss Unpopular stigma gets stronger from an attempted act of violence, which leads us to the third and final act, with her flight from trauma. By now, events that develop on screen would already become quite episodic, as the story reads like a book, and plot threads open and close like a turning of a page. All these while we peer at letters written to a certain Mr Ogata (Seiichi Tanabe), which reads like diary entries explaining the inner thoughts of Sachiko, though I have to admit that at times they do seem abstract enough, and out of place.

While generally a quiet, slow moving movie, the sound design here alternates between tranquility, and really hard hitting loud noises ranging from falling marbles, banging on doors, the dragging of chairs in class, to the random jets flying overhead. Likely in echo of the character's state of mind, these loud noises do jolt you up from its peacefulness, knowing that there's always something negative brewing on the horizon. But while you think that the narrative's quite sedate, the payload actually gets delivered at the end, as you're likely to start to realize that you've been brought along for an exasperating journey all this while.

By the time the last 5 minutes play out and the end credits roll, you can't help but to feel a sense of pity, and anger even, at her giving up of hope, and falling into a web of deceit that she'll probably never be able to crawl out from. Then again, I'm second guessing that it's because of my negative nature adopted when viewing the story from tinted lenses made so by earlier unfortunate episodes of Sachiko's encounters with the wrong type of men, of being the kind of helpless schoolgirl jail bait that gets dangled in front of desperadoes. For all I know, she might be offered a job at a departmental store, or a fast food outlet. But who am I to kid?

Harmful Insect isn't that easy to sit through given its rather bleak nature, although its run time seemed to be a breezy less than 90 minute movie, which was anything but. You can feel its length as it keeps you guessing at some parts before providing you clear answers. But it will make you think in depth of the character of Sachiko and her possible aftermath, way after the end credits roll.

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