NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
Months after the March 11 tsunami/near-meltdown at Fukushima, swathes of streets and homes are still battered flat ruins – and an array of folk are still living in tents or makeshift shelters or not-much-more-than-sheds holiday places by a small, drab lake a few miles out of town. Yuichi Sunida (Shota Sometani), a teenager, is battered and robbed by his father (Ken Mitsuishi) – when he can be bothered to show up at the family’s boat-hire business – and abandoned by his mother (Makiko Watanabe) but looked after (not always in the most helpful way) by a few bedraggled, literally washed-up eccentrics – including Yorona (Tetsu Watanabe), an old guy who claims he lost a fortune in the disaster – and more or less stalked by classmate Keiko Chazawa (Fumi Nikaido), a terminally perky and cheery refugee from a seemingly luxurious home – where her parents are building her a gallows – who tries to energise Sunida into getting the boat business running but keeps taking hits and rebuffs which prompt her to fill her pocket with stones symbolising her grudges against him.
Yakuza show up trying to get Sunida’s father to pay back a loan he took out supposedly to help his family and at a low point Sunida takes a brieze block and batters his father to death, burying him in a shallow grave and coating himself with mud. He emerges crazier, daubing himself with paint, and putting a kitchen knife in a bag and going to town intent on vigilante action. First, he considers taking on the yakuza (with a flash-forward premonition of how badly this might turn out which serves perhaps as a counter-argument to the Hit Girl scene from Kick-Ass) only to find that Yoruna – who has raised money through the robbery of a neo-Nazi committed with the aid of a pickpocket who has been mentoring him – has paid off the debt. Then, Sunida sets himself against the seeming proliferation of random idiots making life worse for the ordinary folk (and are prone to stab inspirational buskers or standing women on the tube), though he is plainly aware he shares more psychological tics with the crazies (mostly young men) who are on the point of killing sprees than the people he thinks to save (and one especially disturbing loon has visited him and acted like a soul-mate).
Though recent events form a backdrop, Sion Sono’s film – based on a pre-March 11 manga by Minoru Furuya – evokes many earlier Japanese disasters and has some of the post-apocalyptic feel of Kurosawa’s junkyard epic Dodes’ka-den – the flood has had more of an impact on the psyches of these characters than even on their houses and businesses, smashing families like flimsy Japanese buildings, turning even decent folks like desperate-to-do-the-right-thing Sunida into brutal, casually cruel human animals (the title refers to a hardy kind of mole, perhaps echoing El Topo – though in their defensive prickliness, Porcupine might make a better English title). It’s a long haul, with many painful moments – the constant slapping and hitting between the young couple (which feels like something from a neorealist Giulietta Masina movie overlaid by a peculiar Japanese malice) especially hurt, but less so than the parental horrors like the father who repeatedly thinks he’s telling his son for the first time that he wishes the boy drowned in the river so he could collect insurance money or the even more peculiar set-up at Keiko’s home. A woman in her underwear with ankle-chains and ‘cunt’ carved into her body is seen taking out the trash at one point, ordered by an unseen man – and she tries to reassure Sunida that this is her choice, which suggests that these people are trapped by their own self-imposed rules as much as by a society that has broken down.
It’s as grimly miserablist as Siono (Cold Fish, Guilty of Romance), yet impressive, with a deliberately drab, washed-out as well as washed-up look. It takes a while to get a grip, but the lead performances (especially from Nikaido) are extraordinary and commanding.