In 2017, Ogata Takaomi’s The Hungry Lion (2017) explored the danger and the power of the image on mental health of high-school students. This narrative subtly underlined the problematic dimension of the image in contemporary Japanese society. Apparently, Takaomi was not the only on to highlight the problematic effects the dimension of the image can have in the Japanese society. In the same year, Shugo Fujii released his socially engaged narrative Red Line Crossing, which, contrary to Takeomi’s narrative, explores the effect of the image on teachers.
One day, principal Inada (Etsuko Tanemura) enters her office at Toyotama Jr. high school. While she though she shut her computer down, it is still running. Despite feeling uneasy, she decides to check it out and finds a website called ‘Japanese schoolgirl Upskirt Voyeur’ opened in the browser. Suddenly, she is confronted Uenishi-sensei’s body. The word ‘webmaster’, written on a page, is attached to his body.
The teachers quickly suspect the involvement of students. Mori-sensei (Daiki Tanaka), in order to prevent further crime, decides, together with some colleagues and the newly appointed Taniya (Tatsuji Sugiyama), to systematically search the bags of the students. Eventually, they discover strange stuff belonging to a student named Manda, but this discovery appears to hide a reality far more problematic that they ever could have assumed.
As a narrative Red Line Crossing touches upon many things that are intrinsically linked with the importance of the image within contemporary Japanese society. In the context of a school – the school as a place of how to become able to function within society – the way the incident and the prevention of further crime is approached reveals that only the ‘eye’ of society, i.e. how the image of the school, its students, and the teachers reflect towards society’s ‘eye’, matters.
This concern is subtly evoked in the refusal of the teachers to go to the police before someone is pinpointed as ‘responsible’, before someone is forced to take the fall for the incident. This search is revealed as a way to safeguard, as much as possible, the image of school in the ‘eye’ of society (Narra-note 1). This preoccupation with the societal image is also made evident by the denial of the existence of bullying and problem-children and by the explicit concealing of line-crossing behaviour of certain teachers. Besides pointing towards the importance of the societal image, the denial and concealing points to an underlying and understandable preoccupation with safeguarding one’s own image as respectable teacher (Narra-note 2). As everyone is preoccupied with their image, the tackling of the problem, i.e. bullying between students, is ironically circumvented (Narra-note 3).
While Red Line Crossing – by showing the fundamental difference between these images and the hidden (and often cruel) subjectivity (e.g. fear of losing face) – sensibly confronts the spectator with the tyranny of the societal surface-image and the general preoccupation with maintaining such this facade, the narrative also empowers this confrontation by focusing on the mental (in)stability, often hidden behind the ego-image, and the subjective destabilizing this preoccupation can cause. In other words, it is only by framing the effects of trauma, guilt and human cruelty and the counterproductive effects of endangering the deceptive ego that the preoccupation with maintaining a self-image towards society and the importance of upholding a hypocrite family-image within the school and between teachers is shockingly delineated (Narra-note 4).
The cinematography of Red Line Crossing reveals a love for movement and composition (Cine-note 1). By carefully selecting cinematographical techniques, e.g. (extreme) close-ups, various camera-perspectives, depth of field, zoom-outs,… etc., and thoughtfully combining them, Fujii is able to craft some truly interesting narrative sequences and infuse his narrative with a sensible emotional tension throughout. Nevertheless, Fujii’s thoughtfulness and his firm grasp on the medium of film is felt the most in his ability of composing shots in a poetically associative way. These brief poetic associations give, due to their clarity and evocative power, emotional depth to Tania and, to a lesser degree, Kan-sensei and Mori-sensei. All these elements, especially Fujii’s insistence on close-ups, reveals that the narrative’s cinematographical composition aims to frame the mental state of various characters beyond the surface-image of society. And Fujii, supported by a cast able to bring the superficial hypocrisy and the trembling of the psyche in a natural way to the fore, does this is a highly effective and extremely refreshing way.
Furthermore, the way sounds and music are integrated into the cinematographical composition successfully creates an atmosphere of tension, while – when necessary – underlining the shifts to the associative poetic image-sequences. These shifts are also underscored through the way Fujii plays with colours. While the more ‘objective’ narrative spaces are painted in depressive subdued colours, subtle colour-changes herald the framing of the subjective mental reality of Taniya or, in some cases, the subjective reality of Kan-sensei and Mori-sensei (Cine-note 2).
The emotional effectiveness of Red Line Crossing has to be situated in Fujii’s ability to frame, by way of his seamlessly integrated brief moments of associative visual poetry, mental instability – that what hides behind the ‘eye’ of society but problematizes the consistency of the ego – in such a remarkable and sensible way. By framing these subjective moments Fujii clearly shows that the subject is never the same as the self-image. As such, the narrative reveals that the truth of the subject has to be found in those moments of mental stumbling and not in the self-serving deceptive mirror palace, which gives a subject a place as image within a society that thrives on images like no other. In this way, Red Line Crossing, this highly effective and thoughtfully composed cocktail of tension and mystery ending in a highly confronting and thought-provoking way, becomes nothing other than one of the most powerful plea’s for more serious attention to mental health in Japanese society.
Narra-note 1: By showing the rivalry between Hashimoto, the art teacher, and what she calls ‘the Mori Club’, the image of a school as a family-like environment is even broken before it is truly established.
Narra-note 2: When Tania meets Katayama and Kan, the exchange between Katayama and Kan is indicative of hypocrisy between teachers. In their joking with each other, it is their ‘uchi’ that is expressed. In other words, in their joking, they express their subjective thoughts and feelings about each other.
Narra-note 3: The revelation of the bullying situation shows that searching the bags happens outside the principal’s knowledge. Upon hearing that such situation has to be reported, Katayama-sensei first concern is not how to resolve this situation, but if she will need to take responsibility.
Narra-note 4: The fundamental aspect that makes Tania so mentally unstable is the guilt that comes from the fact of having lied about the traumatic incident. While his lie helped safeguarding the image of the school and the image of the teacher in question, this lie and the guilt causes the trauma to be irresolvable.
In this respect, the sequence before the finale reveals what Tania, at this point in his life, wanted to have said at the time of the incident.
Cine-note 1: In the opening scene, Fuji is able to create an effective element of surprise with his composition.
Cine-note 2: In some instances, the colour shift evokes the imagination of a certain teacher, often undefined. In each case of colour-shift, the objective narrative space is transformed into a subjectified narrative space.
And in one odd case, the colour does not change, even though the cinematography slips into framing how Tania’s mental state comes to be disordered.