Hiroki Ryuichi’s River was originally inspired by random killings on June 7, 2008 by a disturbed man in Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics shopping district. After ramming a rented truck into a crowd and killing three, he fatally stabbed four more with a knife before being arrested by police. The incident generated worldwide headlines, as well as an outpouring of commentary on the alienated and despairing state of Japan’s marginalized young.
After the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, however, Hiroki decided to rewrite the script of River to reflect the newer tragedy, whose impact on the national psyche was even larger.
River is the sort of quiet, lyrical, slow-paced film that Hiroki’s producers on his more commercial outings, such as the 2010 period drama The Lightening Tree (Raiou), no doubt regard as box office poison. But Hiroki succeeds in combining his two story threads into an organic whole that goes beyond the headlines to comment on such universal dilemmas as how to let go, how to forgive and how to find purpose when all seems futile and arbitrary.
He begins with a long travelling shot of his heroine, Hikari (Renbutsu Misako), exiting Abihabara station and walking down its streets with a pensive, lonely air that, together with her orange cloth coat, set her apart from the bustling crowd around her. A photographer (Nakamura Mami) takes an interest in her and, while snapping away, teases out her story: Hikari’s boyfriend Kenji was one of the killer’s victims and, after a long period of depression and solitude, Hikari began revisiting the site of his murder.
In the course of the day she encounters a troubled young man (Emoto Tokio) who also has a connection to the killer, a friendly street musician (Aoki Michiko, who sings under the name Quinka, With a Yawn) whose song touches her heart and a dodgy middle-aged recruiter for a maid café (Taguchi Tomorowo) whose blandishments gives her ego a lift. On a whim, she tries a stint as maid, but her brief acquaintance with a jaded co-worker (Nanana) persuades her that adopting a fake persona to extract money from gullible men is not for her.
Then she finally meets Yuji (Kobayashi Yukichi), a young electronics parts seller who may have known Kenji. But he becomes irritated by her obsession with the past. “This is reality,” he says pointing to a news program on TV about the recent disaster. But he is escaping from his own past — namely, his estranged parents living in a tsunami-devastated town.
Alternating between handheld cameras shots that discreetly observe from a distance and close-ups that capture his characters at their most vulnerable and revealing, Hiroki creates a distinctive atmosphere at once objective and intimate. At the same time, he likes to push his actresses out of their comfort zones (see Terajima Shinobu in his 2003 masterpiece Vibrator for an example) and Rembutsu Michiko is no exception. At the film’s beginning and end Hiroki films her in long takes in which she reveals Hikari’s changing emotions in a subtle, natural flow rather than with bravura theatrics.
As is also often the case in Hiroki’s films, the male lead, Yuji, serves a catalyst for the heroine, cracking open her shell and opening her to new possibilities. But this street-savvy down-and-outer in a stocking cap is as lost and alone in his own way as Hikari is in hers. Kobayashi Yukichi conveys Yuji’s mix of outer cool and inner pain with a feeling of transparency and ease.
River is aptly titled since both Hikari and Yuji appear to be drifting like flotsam on the water, but both are also moving toward something vaster than their individual existences, as they free themselves from past resentments or regrets. What that something might be Hiroki leaves for us to decide, with Moon River playing over the credit crawl. An unusual, but appropriate choice — unless you’ve seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s too many times and can’t get Audrey Hepburn out of your head.