“A confronting narrative (…), [exploring] the power of the imaginary and the destructive effects this imaginary can have on the position of the subject within society (…), that is now needed more than ever. “
If there is one contemporary Japanese director that is socially engaged, it is Ogata Takaomi. He proved this engagement with his first feature film Never Ending Blue (2009), which explored abuse and self-mutilation, and confirmed it with his third feature film Sunk in the Womb (2013), which was based on an incident in Osaka where two children were murdered after being abused.
With The Hungry Lion, Takaomi provides another exploration of a social issue, an issue that is now more pressing than ever: the impact and the power of the imaginary, the destructiveness of the image. The Hungry Lion plays at the international Film Festival Rotterdam.
[See list of screenings: https://iffr.com/en/2018/films/the-hungry-lion.)
One day, Hitomi’s homeroom tutor, Hosono (Toshimitsu Kokido) is taken away by the police for suspected child prostitution and child pornography. Not long after that, the rumour that the Hitomi (Urara Matsubayashi) is the girl in the leaked video of Hosono, starts to spread around school. She can’t believe anyone would fall for such a lie, but the rumour persists and keeps gaining power. To escape the rumour, Hitomi sees no other option than to kill herself.
The narrative of The Hungry Lion vividly underlines the power and thus the danger of the imaginary. This aspect is brought to the fore in two different ways. First of all, the narrative is characterized by a natural and subtle, but persisting presence of the mobile phone. By way of this presence, the “imaginarisation” of the lives of young people and their indulging in image-building on social media is brought quietly to the fore. Secondly, the aspect of the rumour, to be understood as a doubtful message uttered by signifiers that conditions an ‘image’ beyond the power of the subject it comes to identify, is revealed as an aspect breaking relations and isolating subjects. There is no level of truth involved; there are only some signifiers that enforce an image that, by the social support it gains, becomes nothing other than a destructive force that unravels the social bond and, as thus, the place to find and realize oneself as subject. The subject attains without agency the place the image of the rumour accommodates, leaving, as the narrative implies, the subjective evacuation from the social reality as the only remaining option (narra-note 1, narra-note 2, psycho-note 1).
The confronting power of the narrative derives mainly from the fact that it captures the speech and corporal interactions of subjects, and students in particular, so naturally and believable. And while this is in part function of the cinematography – a cinematography that formally translates the subjective distance present in society, it also means that the narrative space is supported by the natural performances of the actors/actresses. And while every actor/actress supports the natural feel of the narrative, the performance of Urara Matsubayashi as Hitomi is simply splendid.
The cinematography is marked by an extreme simplicity, gently composing the narrative with slow fixed shots – in some rare instances a composed movement of the steady camera is introduced within the shot (cine-note 1). This naturalistic simplicity turns the spectator into an objective instance observing the narrative space and gives the narrative a feeling of documenting the reality of high-school subjects (Narra-note 3). By sometimes shifting to shaky moving shots, with respect to Hitomi and her boyfriend Hiroki (Atomu Mizuishi), some subjectivity nevertheless gets represented by the cinematography (Cine-note 2).
The Hungry Lion is a sober, but confronting narrative in which Ogata Takaomi vividly explores the power of the imaginary and the destructive effects this imaginary can have on the position of the subject within society. With a naturalistic approach to his subject-matter, Ogata Takaomi proves once again that he is able to frame social issues in a clear and respectful way. In short, The hungry Lion is a phenomenal docu-fiction that is needed now more than ever.
Cine-note 1: The narrative often shoots the entire scene in one shot. In some instances, more shots are used.
Cine-Note 2: One could say that the shift to shaky shots, translates a shift into a more intimate and more personal sphere, e.g. when Hitomi and her boyfriend enter the adult section of the video rental space or when they are together in the love hotel. In the second example, the shaky shot nevertheless mainly translates the movement of the phone’s camera. The other shaky shots subtly focuses on the subjectivity of Hitomi and the fragility of her position.
Narra-note 1: The rape of Hitomi by Hiroki’s friends has to be understood as an effect of the place the image conditioned by the rumour accommodates.
Narra-note 2: The image that is constructed of Hitomi after her suicide in the media, seems to paint a more truthful image of Hitomi. Nevertheless, it is hypocritical that the cause that destabilized Hitomi’s subjective position in high-school and in society is never mentioned in the stories her classmates tell about her.
Narra-note 3: The last shot of the narrative – a very surprising shot – underlines the process of image-making and the construction of a narrative, and the fact that every image and every narrative is ‘fake’ and staged at a certain level.
Psycho-note 1: The suicide scene is interesting because it explains the aspect of acting-out. It is only when Hitomi sees her boyfriend with another girl that she, as a subject, (literally) stumbles out of position in society. Her act of suicide was not premeditated, but function of a moment of subjective effacement.