Japan Cuts films explore the long-term effects of broken childhoods

A couple of films in the 2011 edition of Japan Cuts, North America’s largest annual Japanese film festival, examine the paths that kids take years after suffering traumatic childhood experiences.  The cinematic approaches to “A Liar and a Broken Girl” (嘘つきみーくんと壊れたまーちゃん) and “Into the White Night” (白夜行), however, could not be more drastically different from each other.

While taking the bolder creative risks in portraying post-traumatic stress disorder, “A Liar and a Broken Girl” is ultimately the less successful of the two films.  Ma-chan, a pretty high school student played by Aya Omasa, is reunited with childhood friend Mi-kun (Shota Sometani).  It doesn’t take long to realize why the two individuals know each other, or why Ma-chan displays such odd unpredictable behavior in and out of the classroom.  Between a variety of schemes (Ma-chan has kidnapped two kids, while Mi-kun gets a kick out of being a compulsive liar), hospital visits and flashbacks, the movie sways between the mild sheen of a teenage J-dorama and a sinister backstory.  The problem with this storytelling is that the transitions between the present and the past are too jarring.  Had the flashbacks alone been shot as a film, it would have developed into a disturbing horror picture where Ma-chan and Mi-kun would have emerged physically unscathed, but more emotionally scarred than what is portrayed.  Had the present-day scenes formed a separate story, it would have been a superficial ode to apathy not just from the adolescents’ point of view, but from the hospital workers, policemen and other authorities who pretend to care about the teenagers’ fractured lives.  As a result, because the adults and the victims seem to be equally dismissive of life in general, it is difficult for the viewer to care about Ma-chan and Mi-kun, especially since they come across as rather bland individuals who aren’t aware of or seriously apprehended for their behaviors.  Ultimately, the pendulum swings from cuteness to horror almost makes a mockery of the disease.

“Into the White Night,” the closing film of this year’s Japan Cuts, doesn’t toy with such antics and instead results in an ambitious, gripping 149-minute adaptation of a mystery novel by Keigo Higashino.  Again, the two main characters are a girl (Yukiho, played by Maki Horikita) and a boy (Ryouji, played by Kengo Kora) whose tales are told through disturbing flashbacks.  But what makes the viewer care is that the lives of Ryouji (the son of a murdered pawn shop owner) and Yukiho (the daughter of the main suspect) are intertwined with an unsolved murder mystery that continues to gnaw at one police detective well into his retirement.  Over the span of 20 years, a number of memorable friends, family members, associates and acquaintances come and go – in a few cases, literally – and the question becomes not who is responsible for growing pile of murders but “Why?”  Director Yoshihiro Fukagawa certainly spares no detail, and although the ultimate punch to the gut could have occurred earlier in the story, a genuine interest in the photogenic characters’ fates – if not for the individuals themselves – does arise.

The takeaway from both films is that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to understanding the subtleties of adult behavior.  When the layers are peeled back, the innards may not be pretty, but they provide a basis for comprehending why human beings do what they do.  For that lesson alone, “A Liar and a Broken Girl” and “Into the White Night” must be applauded for their daring attempts.

The international premiere “A Liar and a Broken Girl” screens at the Japan Society on Sat., July 15, at 7:15 p.m.  “Into the White Night,” the Japan Cuts closing film and also its international premiere, shows Fri., July 22, at 7 p.m.  Tickets for both can be purchased at japansociety.org.