‘Shoujyo: An Adolescent’ Review

An Adolescent. Image courtesy of Facets CinemathequeJapan. 132 minutes.
Screened at Facets, Chicago
Directed by Eiji Okuda
With Eiji Okuda, Mayu Ozawa, Shoji Akira, Mari Natsuki

Shot through with pangs of loneliness and despair, SHOUJYO paints an intricately-detailed portrait of an emotionally hollow police officer and a family in turmoil.

Middle-aged Tomokawa (Eiji Okuda) lazily patrols his police beat on a bicycle. He leverages his “service” to the community to his advantage; e.g. having found a lost dog, he keeps it several days so as to impress the dog’s female owner, who gratefully has sex with him in her closed shop. Even as he makes love to the woman, however, Tomokawa studies himself in a mirror, too self-absorbed to pay any real attention to anyone but himself. He doesn’t seem pleased with his reflection.

Nonetheless, Tomokawa has friends: he hangs out with several male cronies, and spends time with Sukemasa (Akira Shoji), a mentally-challenged young man.

Out of the blue, Tomokawa is boldly propositioned by a young woman (Mayu Ozawa) in a cafe. Initially she won’t even tell him her name, but with only token resistance — because she looks so young — he takes her to a motel. When he awakes, she is gone.

He becomes a bit obsessed and and eventually finds the young woman, named Yoko, at a funeral ceremony while she is filling in for her grandfather, a mortuary make-up artist. Even after she confesses that she is just 15 years of age, Tomokawa takes up with her again. Her brother turns out to be Sukemasa, and the three form an odd family unit.

Despite the quantity of bare skin on display, Tomokawa and Yoko’s continuing sexual relationship makes one feel more queasy than erotically stimulated. It’s not the age difference per se, but the fact that Yoko is so young. Within the context of the story, it’s obvious that the adolescent Yoko is acting out more than she is seeking sensual fulfillment, so it makes twisted sense that she would yearn for Tomokawa — especially when all her dysfunctional family secrets are revealed.

Eiji Okuda has been acting for more than 20 years, but this was his directorial debut. His acting performance is, alas, a bit flat. Tomokawa has a huge, flamboyant tattoo on his back — drawn by Yoko’s grandfather — alludes to his colorful criminal youth, and appears resigned to make the most of his place in life before Yoko’s arrival, but there’s little evidence in his character to suggest why he would be willing to sacrifice everything for a relationship with a beautiful but obviously troubled 15-year-old girl.

What’s surprising is that the other performances are uneven. We would expect solid turns in a film by an actor-turned-director, but the role of Yoko’s mother (played, I believe, by Mari Natsuki) is strident and over-the-top ugly, and both Sukemasa and the stepfather come across as shockingly stereotypical. These missteps are nearly canceled out entirely, however, by the heartbreaking Mayu Ozawa. She captures the essence of adolescence: the desire to be loved, the longing for adulthood, the juvenile impulses, the teasing of sexual power.

Where Okuda truly surpasses expectation is in his visual sense. The picture is framed elegantly, with miminal, objective camera movements, judicious cutting, and sparing use of close-ups. Most of the time, we feel held at arm’s length, even when the characters are within striking distance.

Though not every character or situation rings true, Okuda gets enough right to cast a slow burning, simmering spell.

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