It’s funny what kind of impression you get from movie posters, and I guess in that light, movie poster design isn’t anywhere near an easy thing. Take for instance the poster for Daihachi Yoshida’s The Kirishima Thing. Looking at the dominating image of the bespectacled student with the 8mm camera, you would think it’s a movie about one person, probably a school student, who makes movies. You’d only be partially right. Kirishima Thing doesn’t have nearly that level of personal focus. Instead, a young ensemble cast of characters plays out the passive (and sometimes not so passive) power struggles between after-school clubs in a typical Japanese high school.
Unexpectedly perhaps, there’s a very delicate touch to this story. Where you might have expected horrific bullying and quickly escalating hostilities, all ending in blood and tears, there’s only a bunch of reasonably normal kids just doing what they do – going to club, waiting for their friends, trying to deal with overbearing teachers or keep their romantic attachments a secret, or get a romantic attachment, or work out what they really want to do with themselves. Which, perhaps, seems to lack a certain narrative tension, but Kirishima Thing has two things going for it that makes up for that – one, events unfold over a period of five days, filmed in a kind of subtle layering of repeated scenes from different perspectives; and two, the titular character himself never once makes an actual appearance.
The story execution, and the lack of this apparently central character, give what happens in the film far more mystery and significance than a linear narrative would ever have been able to manage. Kirishima isn’t just a ghost, he’s a legend. Reportedly perfect, handsome, clever, able to do just about anything and star of the school’s successful volleyball team, he’s talked about, pined for, badmouthed and worshipped to almost mythic proportions. The quietly brilliant Hiroki (Masahiro Higashide) and his sort-of bad boy friends kick around, shooting hoops and snubbing after-school interest clubs just so they can wait for Kirishima to finish volleyball practice. Koizumi, shortest guy on the team, gets his longed-for and equally terrifying opportunity having to sub for him because he’s not there. His girlfriend Risa (Mizuki Yamamoto), the prettiest girl in the school, rejects social engagements to sit on a bench outside the sports hall to wait for him to walk her home. One of the teachers, while in conference with a couple of the film club students and upon seeing a female student crying on another teacher’s shoulder asks a colleague, “Is it the Kirishima thing?”. It’s like the whole school revolves around him, and it’s like everyone’s lives grind to a halt when he’s not there.
Well, not everyone’s life. Maeda (Ryunosuke Kamiki), the ‘director’ of the film club (and the boy that appears in the poster), is just trying to do what he loves, and that’s make a sci-fi zombie film that his drama teacher clearly doesn’t approve of. Unfortunately, Sawajima (Suzuka Ohgo), who is president of the music club and sits behind Hiroki in Form Room, is getting in his way. She has a major unrequited crush, and spends her club time up on the roof of one of the school buildings practising her saxophone in Maeda’s perfect shot, just so Hiroki will notice her. Hiroki’s attentions are however mostly elsewhere. Meanwhile, Mika (Kurumi Shimizu), who’s part of popular-girl Risa’s gang, is watching Koizumi take abuse for subbing for Kirishima but not being him, and Kasumi (Ai Hasimoto) is pretending she doesn’t know Maeda from grade school and doesn’t like some of the the things he likes. And so it goes, all very six degrees of separation, as the news of Kirishima quitting the team and being absent from classes spreads like a minor shockwave through the school and eventually culminates in a panic-laden confrontation of frustrated aspirations where it’s zombies against jocks in a satisfying parody of a George Romero fight scene.
Variety called this film quietly brilliant. It won picture and director awards at the Japanese Academy, and there’s no doubt there’s some very fine film making involved, but as far as entertainment narrative goes, it’s a film that most casual audiences will have to make themselves stick with. The messages aren’t hugely clear (perhaps that’s a phenomena only outside of Japan) and the rewards at the end aren’t as fully realised as they could be. There are only hints of the personal transformations that the upset of perfect student Kirishima’s decisions puts into motion – perhaps the most satisfying character development doesn’t have anything to really do with Kirishima at all – so perhaps it’s better to take Maeda’s words to one of his zombies as the moral lesson of this story. It’s a part of the script, but it’s also a moment of neatly realised allegory – they fight because they have to, he says of the zombie apocalypse survivors, and perhaps of the club participants and youth in general; because they all have to keep living in the same world.
Unless you’re Kirishima, I guess. Then you don’t even get to be on the poster, no matter how great you are.