“Hello! Junichi” continues Katsuhito Ishii’s foray into indie film

In this age of the mega-blockbuster where comic books, toy line products and video games are freely adapted, it might come as a shock to most that all this juvenilia in cinema is catered mainly to the young at heart and not actual youth. Sure, the majority of mainstream films being released in theaters now are rated PG-13 – and a few of them even have teenage protagonists – but the settings and scenarios are so far removed from anything that an average kid could relate to that even when they do tackle familiar topics (like peer pressure, first love or even death), the message is so diluted in CG spectacle and/or shameless melodrama that it would be false advertising to label these as youth films.

For Japanese filmmaker Katsuhito Ishii, the dream to make a film “by the children and for the children” such as “Hello! Junichi” (ハロー!純一, 2014) stems directly from his viewing of the 1976 American comedy “The Bad News Bears” during his formative years. Initially, however, his career did not start this way.  When he began directing in the late ‘90s, he gained critical attention for his bizarre scenarios and surrealistic set pieces in films like “Shark Skin Man” and “Peach Hip Girl” (1998), “The Taste of Tea” (2004), and “Funky Forest: The First Contact” (2005). By the late aughts, though, the director moved away from visual spectacles and started concentrating on writing, producing, and directing far more conventional films, at least in relation to his previous work. It may have had something to do with Ishii’s age or the influence of his students at his acting school, but starting in 2008 he fully embraced the world of independent cinema.

Even for a successful veteran such as Ishii, the Japanese independent film market proved difficult in that very few distributors would take a risk in plunking down money to theatrically release a film that had zero commercial appeal. To solve this most common of problems for indie filmmakers, Ishii went outside the noise of a big metropolitan city like Tokyo and shot his film in quieter, more rural areas with the assistance of his acting school students and longtime collaborators. His first fully independent feature “Sorasoi” (2008) was a collaborative project between his students and another director, Yuuuka Ooosumi, and entailed a group of college students training for a dance competition at a beach hostel. Flash forward six years later and Ishii returns to a small town setting, this time depicting the lives of grade school students.

“Hello! Junichi” is about a shy milquetoast boy, the eponymous Junichi (Amon Kabe), who with his friends forms a band so that they can put on a birthday concert for Junichi’s friend’s mother. Along the way Ishii litters his film with a multitude of subplots, including Junichi’s struggle to gain the courage to return a rabbit eraser to the girl of his dreams, one boy’s quest to learn the mystery behind the disappearing sand in the playground sandbox, and a girl’s goal of pop idol fame. Not all of these plot threads are resolved by film’s end; Ishii’s goal is not to craft a film that follows a Western narrative plot structure but rather to depict in the sincerest way what it’s like to be a kid.

Whereas most children’s films in the West depict kids as either smart alecks who constantly get the better of their parents or living props that need to be saved, in “Hello! Junichi,” Ishii places the children front and center, giving them space to actually act like kids without any contrived plot machinations or cloying attempts at cuteness to garner audience sympathy. Even when the kids are rehearsing with their instruments or erupting into a full blown music video model at the film’s denouement, one gets the sense that “Hello! Junichi” was truly made for kids as scenes of silliness and seriousness comingle to form something that any kid, or kid-at-heart, can enjoy.

Amon, only 9 years old during the shooting of the picture, deftly portrays Junichi as an ordinary kid: devoid of precociousness, a bit shy, but never overplaying his character’s emotions. Watching Amon and the small troupe of child actors that Ishii hired feels more like a carefully orchestrated documentary rather than a kid musical.

Aside from Amon, the actress Hikari Mitsushima (“Love Exposure” (2009), “Villain” (2010)) should also be commended. Playing the young student teacher Anna, Mitsushima channels not just a raw sexuality that any grade school boy or grown man would be attracted to, but unlike a lot of portrayals of female teachers in Japanese cinema – dating all the way back to Hideko Takamine in the 1954 film “Twenty-Four Eyes” – Mitsushima is not an overtly loving mother figure to these kids.  Her experience with indie directors like Sion Sono and Yuya Ishii must have been a deciding factor in Ishii’s decision to cast Mitsushima. All dolled up in “Hello! Junichi,” Mitsushima begins the film as a roughneck, unashamed to talk about her nightly exploits and also unafraid to slap a man or grab a kid by the scruff of his neck, but by the film’s end her demeanor changes.

Katsuhito Ishii has gone from a manic director of surrealist works to a competent and sincere artist with the release of “Hello! Junichi.” According to reports, the director’s next film will be about baseball and shot in the bustling city of Fukuoka. Hopefully it is just as funny, sweet and real as “Hello! Junichi” is.

“Hello! Junichi” screens at JAPAN CUTS: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema on Sun., July 20, at 3 p.m., at the Japan Society.  For ticket information, go to japansociety.org.