River’s Edge is a detailed look into the disenchanted youth of Japan in the 80s, a unique and impactful portrayal of a search for meaning coming up empty. With brilliant performances from all involved, a stellar script, perfect pacing, and an often distressing atmosphere lurking just beneath the surface of each scene, Isao Yukisada’s exploration of youth absolutely shines amongst the many films released this year.
The performance of particularly Fumi Nikaido and Ryo Yoshizawa highlight the struggles of those neglected by the world, outcasts in some way or another, and the beauty of the film comes from characters and their unique relationships or lack thereof with the others. There’s Haruna (Fumi Nikaido) and Ichiro (Ryo Yoshizawa), who find a sort of kinship and affection for each other through the sharing of secrets, as well as Haruna’s consistent rescuing of Ichiro after he’s assaulted for his sexuality; then there’s Ichiro and Kozue (Sumire), who come together almost out of necessity, each finding another who shares and understands their feelings of alienation.
There are also relationships that are less ‘real.’ Toward the end, Haruna ponders about Rumi (Shiori Doi), one of her two school ‘friends’ who she spent each day with, and why she didn’t tell her she was pregnant. But the pondering doesn’t last long, and she knows they were never really friends as such — they came together and stayed together just because it’s how people move, how they gravitate to a social group. They knew very little about each other really, and Haruna doesn’t seem to feel any sorrow in soon leaving them behind without even saying goodbye. One scene perfectly encapsulates this feeling, as Haruna and her other friend visit Rumi in the hospital. They walk in, see her struggling with the overwhelming weight of all that’s happened recently, and after a moment, they simply leave.
These relationships give way to sometimes tender, sometimes very depressing dialogue and interaction. Ichiro tells Haruna a very telling — yet still very layered — statement that she’s the first real person he’s told about his sexuality. He’s seemingly told Kozue as well, but perhaps he doesn’t see her as a ‘real’ person, as he knows of the mental storm that encompasses her. Neglected, overpriviledged, yet ignored by her parents, suffering from bulimia, attempting to succeed in her job as a model despite not enjoying it — Kozue is a cocktail of issues. Add onto this a background obsession with death, and perhaps this is why Ichiro does not consider her a ‘real’ person.
These relationships are not always depressing, however, but sometimes humurous with an edge of biting truth. As Haruna and Ichiro discuss his affection for another boy in their class year, Haruna begins to interrogate her friend on how sex works for him — what he likes, how homosexuals go about choosing roles, etc. To this, Ichiro replies with probing and personal questions of his own, such as if she swallows when giving oral. The awkward conversation, along with Ichiro’s point of people considering homosexuals strange points of interest rather than just people, puts Haruna in an awkward place, but it”s played off as rather humorous — a light moment that doesn’t actually take away or distract from the main themes River’s Edge is focusing in on.
The tragic outweighs the light, however; comfort quickly turns to dependence, and when a rumour goes around that there’s an actual fortune buried down by the river, kids from school go out in droves to the marsh to search, putting Ichiro into a panic about a private relationship. Ryo Yoshizawa’s acting brilliance sparks through here as he desperately runs down and tackles all he can, accepting a beating to keep his secret, viciously broken down by the violent youths all while Kanna helplessly watches on.
There are so many beautiful elements throughout River’s Edge, things that highlight characters or situations in subtle yet rewarding ways. When Haruna says a goodbye to her now ex-boyfriend Kannonzaki, it’s an awkward goodbye absent of any love or affection. Then, as he walks away, knowing now that the second he rounds the corner she’ll forever be out of his life, he begins to run, finally at the end of one arc of their lives.
Interspersed throughout the film are documentary-like interview scenes with each of the main characters. They seem to not actually take place in canon, instead becoming an interesting look inside the heads of the characters. One in particular has such an immense power to it, showcasing a moving and depressing performance that truly depicts what an accomplished actor Fumi Nikaido is. Her final interview segment, where she ponders on whether she really feels alive or not, winds up a struggle. She ultimately comes to the conclusion that she does not, but she wants to keep going, to find something — a way to feel alive. It’s both hopeless and hopeful, all at once.
Another subtle element spread throughout River’s Edge is the parallel between the aura of the characters and the intensity of the depressive pit they are all placed within, with the pollution of the river surrounded by menacing factories and industry. By the end, there are shots of murky water, trash spread throughout, muck from the facilities slowly overtaking nature.
And then there’s the sound of eating — disgusting, squelching sounds, loud eating, closeup mics, and a focus on the food itself. It’s another small element, yet it adds so much to the feelings the audience has for the two and their situations. This leads to another of the few hilarious scenes throughout, where as one person performs a blowjob, another watches on, biting down hard into a sausage.
Out of all the movies I’ve seen this year, River’s Edge would be my most highly recommended. The emotions it conveys, the story it tells, and the unique time and place it portrays all comes across so strongly. Exploring what it means to feel alive, as well as the impact neglect and having no direction can have, is incredibly powerful. Fumi Nikaido (perhaps best known for her work in Sion Sono’s Himizu) provides an absolutely stellar performance. River’s Edge finds a way to place it in perfectly within Rumi’s tragedy.