Shady (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 94 minutes approx.
Children who are bullied at school rarely have friends to rely on or turn to for support while their tormentors make their lives a misery. Misa Kumada (Mimpi*β) is such a girl, picked on because of her stocky frame and called “Pooh” due to the first syllable of her surname (Kuma) meaning “bear” in Japanese. However a fellow classmate, Izumi Kiyose (Izumi Okamura), has also been ostracised due to being too pretty but unlike Misa she takes it all in her stride. Recognising a kindred spirit Izumi befriends Misa and the two slowly become inseparable but as the old adage goes, the more you know someone the less you actually know them, as Misa is about to find out.
Every once in a while a young filmmaker comes along with a debut outing that puts many established directors to shame with a work of depth, maturity beyond their years and a fresh outlook on a tired convention. Precedents that come to mind include the mighty Orson Welles and current French Canadian arthouse darling Xavier Dolan. At the risk of hyperbolising Shady suggests that 24 year-old Ryohei Watanabe is a name which could quiet easily join this illustrious group of paradigm shifting young guns in the movie world.
Made on the insanely cheap budget of just £10,000 with a largely unknown cast and crew of people some who worked gratis, Shady doesn’t look cheap at all. It’s not glossy or overproduce but it has all the necessary polish and gravitas of any film that has gone through the studio system. The aesthetics of the film however are there simply to set the changing moods and atmosphere, it is the story and the two sublime central performances that drive this project.
Japan, like many countries, has its own take on the coming-of-age school drama while earning the distinction of seldom repeating itself within the genre. It is a testament to Watanabe’s writing that he teases us with what may appear to be your regular school drama at first but the writing is no the wall through the subtlest of hints that this will gradually transform into anything but conventional.
The first is arguably the most transparent – Izumi being way too gleeful in her approach when siding with Misa – but again Watanabe is keen to ensure that the motives of his characters are not so easy to read. In complete contrast to the depressed Misa, Izumi is rarely without a toothy smile on her face, taking her bullying at the hands of a classmate named Aya, who has been missing for a few weeks, as a mere distraction, suggesting Izumi revels in being “different”, something Misa can’t reconcile.
After a while Izumi’s radiance and positivity rubs off on Misa and she begins to accept herself in her own skin and stepping out side of her own comfort zone to keep up with the new friend. Izumi will often, if a little too proudly, confess to some improper behaviour, such as “servicing” a teacher for a maths test answer sheet, which shocks Misa as much as Izumi’s nonchalance about it does. As ever, it is the little things that Misa turns a blind eye to for fear of losing her only friend, but these things tend to build up and one particularly aggressive gesture by Izumi sets of the alarm bells for both the audience and Misa that Izumi might have some issues.
From hereon in the plot recap comes to a close as to say any more will spoil what is a taut, twisting and unpredictable psychodrama to offers more of a nod to Korean cinema (by Watanabe’s own admission) than Japanese. The well crafted script slips in little conceits to suggest where the story is going and just when you think you are right in your suspicions, the rug is pulled from under our feet. Watanabe’s story is about testing the boundaries of friendship and how far to we tolerate certain behaviour from our friends before we say enough is enough. Izumi’s behaviour isn’t quite Jekyll and Hyde but her cheery disposition certainly hides a darker side. The irony that she offers Misa a respite from being bullied only to essentially act like a bully to Misa to keep her onside, who is both too loyal and too scared to walk away.
Watanabe’s prior experience in filmmaking is the amateur short, with nothing lasting over five minutes. Shady sees his leap to feature length territory and it is one made with confidence with a sure footed landing. He keeps things simple yet has an eye for unusual shot composition while keeping his colour palettes and his lighting natural to great effect. Watanabe also display great skill in building tension and creating subtle tonal shifts while maintaining a steady pace and narrative. Occasionally he throws in some surreal supernatural elements to depict the effects of Misa’s eventual tortured psyche.
Similarly the two leads are relative newcomers too – the funkily monikered Mimpi*β is in fact a pop singer making her acting debut, with one of her songs serving as the closing theme. The peppy popstral is playing against type as the downtrodden Misa, creating a unique sympathetic presence with her measured performance. Izumi Okamura was a magazine model with one short student film to her credit, making the most of this leap to the big screen by delivering a nuanced yet fervent performance, making Izumi an almost adorable psycho! The chemistry created between the two girls is utterly believable, allowing the dichotomy of the contrasting personalities to mesh slowly but convincingly.
A successful blending of styles from the J-cinema oeuvre, Shady is the darkest, most unsettling yet utterly absorbing and brilliantly constructed school based drama since the mighty Confessions, while carving out a niche of its own. A sublimely impressive debut from a prodigious new talent that will haunt you long after the credits have rolled.
Main Cast Interview
Rating – ****
Man In Black