For years now the talk of cults has touched on wounds for the Japanese population, following the 1995 Aum cult gas attack on Tokyo. Consequently, a number of Japanese films have very effectively looked at the stories of individuals and groups associated with these cults. These films have been the most breathtakingly touching and poignant amongst contemporary Japanese cinema. Canary (or Kanaria) is one such film, looking at the journey of twelve year old Koichi, his struggles while living in the Nirvana cult, and his adaptation to life outside the cult.
At this point, it must be stressed that Canary is not a film focussed primarily on the cult. Shiota has crafted a film that portrays the journey that Koichi goes on to re-establish a normal life for himself. Shiota shows Koichi’s rebirth into normal society as he travels from Kyoto to Tokyo in order to retrieve his baby sister, who is living with Koichi’s estranged grandfather. Along the way, Koichi comes across twelve year old Yuki, a desperate young girl who is also wishing to escape her abusive past.
The journey from Kyoto to Tokyo provides the opportunity for Koichi and Yuki to get to know each other. As they travel, they face struggles that test their ability to cope in society and with each other. Along the way, the two children come across bizarre characters that act as metaphors to the relationship that Koichi and Yuki share, such as the sadistic lesbian couple that the two encounter early in the film. Ultimately, the struggles and supporting characters push Koichi and Yuki to accept each other, their pasts and their fates, allowing the audience to clearly see their mental states change as the film progresses.
One element that makes Canary so powerful is the film’s subject matter. Shiota shows us glimpses of the Nirvana cult life through a series of Koichi’s dreams and flashbacks. It is in these flashbacks that Shiota really excels as a filmmaker. The representation of the Nirvana cult life is most detailed, providing a fantastic addition to Koichi’s characterisation, explaining his bizarre behaviour and his difficulties communicating with others. Moreover, the way that Shiota portrays the cult provides the film with an extremely saddening, lonely and alienating effect. This ultimately absorbs you further into the film and Koichi’s personality.
Another reason why Canary succeeds is because of the brilliant performances given by the film’s young actors, Hoshi Ishida (Koichi) and Mitsuki Tanimura (Yuki). Tanimura, provides an outstanding performance, coming across absolutely desperate at times. Her ability to understand the finer details of her character are remarkable, especially the scenes dealing with prostitution, abuse and paedophilia.
However, Canary isn’t without its flaws. At times, the film is paced rather clumsily and the mood changes rather quickly. Moreover, Shiota’s conclusion to the film seems somewhat ill conceived, almost slipping into abstract symbolism, making the fate of the characters rather ambiguous. However, in light of the film’s other outstanding elements these flaws don’t really detract from the overall quality of this filmic offering.