Teen angst remains a bedrock of the high school movie. Whether it be tackling first world problems in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or a coming of age tale in Lady Bird, teenagers can be found lamenting their plight at the hands of teachers or adults, who just don’t get them.
Adults are largely absent in River’s Edge, the latest film from Isao Yukisado. Their lack of presence becoming a metaphor for how much of a part they play in the lives of the film’s protagonists. Based on an early ‘90s Manga by the same name (and sharing the name and many of the themes with the cult 1986 Tim Hunter film starring Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Crispin Glover and Dennis Hopper), the film charts the interwoven lives of a group of students – all of them deliberate stereotypes – as they wrestle with a cascade of problems inside and outside of school.
The main focus is on Haruna (Fumi Nikaidou) who regularly protects Ichiro (Ryo Yoshizawa), a closeted gay boy, from being beaten up by her boyfriend, Kannonzaki (Shuhei Uesugi). In an effort to thank Haruna for help, Ichiro shows her the secret he keeps hidden in the long grass by a river: a rotted corpse which the young man visits in times of trouble. The fetid skeleton ends up symbolising the dark secrets that all the characters hide, whether it is a penchant for violent sex, becoming involved in prostitution or a willingness to commit bloody murder.
This makes River’s Edge sound like a no-holds barred visual fright fest, but these moments are scattered throughout the narrative. For the rest of the time, Yukisado follows the sombre teens as they wax lyrical to each other and an unknown interviewer about the lives they lead and want to lead. Like a Japanese Ken Park there is a never a moment when the audience doesn’t feel like something is going to go terribly wrong.
Despite splashes of gallows humour that lighten the mood on occasion, the film’s bleakness can be tough to wade through. Does that make it a bad film? Not necessarily. After all, despite the heightened reality of some scenes, there’s still a truth that will resonate with those who grew up never understanding why they were told high school would be the best years of their lives. Adults, it argues on behalf of its characters, are only there when things get really rough. Until then, you are left to navigate by yourself without a map.
Filmed in Academy ratio – giving the whole thing the feel of a demented after school special – and seasoned with suitably melodramatic performances from its cast, River’s Edge is the kind of film that will make you want to comfort its characters, whilst making you feel relatively grubby at the same time.
Fun fact: The average human pancreas weighs approx. 80 grams, has a creamy, rich mouth feel with a taste comparable to aged sashimi scallops… best not ask how we came about these facts.
But knowing this information has exactly as much relevance to the storyline of I Want To Eat Your Pancreas as the film’s actual title, and that’s to say, practically nothing. It’s not that there isn’t a passing mention of pancreas consumption, or that hardcore Japanese pop-culture fans will respond to some brand recognition, it’s just that compared to the other 99.8% of the film’s 108 minute run time, it’s a little puzzling that this is the reference Studio VLON used to label this beautifully rendered feature length anime for its Western release. Especially considering that the movie resonates as an emotional teenage coming-of-age fable that will likely have any wayward eighties-horror aficionados wondering into the cinema dabbing tears from their eyes as opposed to saliva from the corner of their mouths.
Spawned from the serialised novel by Yoru Sumino, and having already been adapted as a live-action film under the similarly ambiguous title of Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, director Shin’ichiro Ushijima wastes no time in establishing the bittersweet tone of his film, opening on a funeral scene weighed down by a somber narration delivered by the film’s central protagonist, Shiga.
From this point on, I Want To Eat Your Pancreas essentially takes place as a flashback, introducing Shiga as deeply introverted high schooler, more comfortable looking at the pages of a book than engaging with the world around him; a pastime that finds him in possession of a book he finds abandoned in a hospital waiting room. Flicking through its pages and realising it’s a personal dairy of a terminally ill patient, Shiga is suddenly confronted by one of his fellow classmates, the vivacious Sakura, who claims the dairy as hers.
Sakura explains that she suffers from a pancreatic disease, but as it doesn’t impact her day-to-day health nobody besides her immediate family know of her illness, and begs Shiga to keep her secret.
More distressed by having a conversation with a fellow classmate than learning of her condition, Shiga basically indicates he couldn’t care less and walks off. An action that immediately fascinates and attracts Sakura, bonding her to him regardless of his discomfort.
To call what follows, a simple teen love story, would do an injustice to what is essentially a beautifully crafted relationship between two damaged souls, deftly jumping between light-hearted playfulness and emotionally jarring moments that resonate with genuine angst.
Best known for his work on the series One Punch Man, director Ushijima has crafted a captivating and emotional work with his debut feature. And while the film does suffer from some pacing issues during its second act; never quite reaching the sense of heartbreak it strives for, it’s a film that nonetheless gets beneath the skin and eats away at you long after the credits roll… right down to your pancreas.
With inspirational presentations from WIFT's Megan Riakos and SAFC's Courtney Gibson, it was Screen Producers Australia's Matthew Deaner, reading one of his member's comments about Screen Forever introducing a creche, that brought the room to tears.