A Fun Ride

 © River’s Edge Film Partners, TAKARAJIMASHA / Kyoko Okazaki
© River’s Edge Film Partners, TAKARAJIMASHA / Kyoko Okazaki

Japan, 1994 – existential boredom plagues the lives of six angsty teenagers, whose own brand of “mal de siècle” implies bullying, bulimia or borderline psychopathy. Isao Yukisada’s latest feature is a live-action adaptation of Kyoko Ozaki's eponymous manga, that is faithful to the elliptical nature of comic book narratives. RIVER'S EDGE, showing in Berlinale Panorama, is a far-reaching portrait of Japan’s disaffected youth: each of Yukisada's protagonists has something disturbing at the core of their identities, while offering a unique spin on classical anime archetypes.

Haruna Wakakusa is a stoic, chain-smoking teenager struggling to choose between Kannonzaki, her bully boyfriend, and his victim, Ichiro Yamada. As Haruna and Ichiro’s friendship deepens, so does she sink deeper into the closeted teen’s innermost secrets and his relationships with Kozue, a bulimic supermodel, and Kanna, Yamada's disturbingly sweet show-girlfriend.

Yukisada’s intervention lies in a series of faux-interviews with the protagonists (which intercut the plot) where the teenagers open up about their families and intimate fears. But in spite of its morbid tone, RIVER’S EDGE doesn’t shy away from comedic, campy moments – as one foreplay scene hilariously cuts to Kozue eating pizza, one ends up pondering the many wondrous opportunities of the Kuleshov effect. The film’s elliptical editing is one of its most provocative facets, making the first half-hour a puzzling, dark and disjointed narrative. And it does work towards constructing suspense: some shots are cut in mid-action or the music is sometimes stopped mid-scene, in what is seemingly a cinematographic homage to the sequential nature of comic strips. However, as the plot starts making more and more sense, these devices start to seem somewhat flat and conventional, stripping away much of the mysterious atmosphere that was present in the beginning.

Although it’s no masterpiece, RIVER’S EDGE is a thoroughly captivating offering from this year’s Panorama section which constantly challenges expectations – is it a coming-of-age comedy or a horror movie? Are these kids intrinsically messed up or a product of their social medium? And where are all these seemingly random cuts leading to? It’s up to you to find out and decide, but it’s certainly a fun ride.