“A timely reminder that Japanese society has to take bullying and its effects more seriously.”
If one looks at Eisuke Naito’s oeuvre, one can easily see his love for the horror-genre and his preference to focus on the lives of adolescents. While the subjective reasons for these preferences are not clear for the spectator, with Liverleaf (2018), based on Rensuke Oshikiri’s gruesome manga of the same name, Eisuke Naito is able to once again satisfy his preferences.
One day, after finishing classes, Haruka Nozaki (Anna Yamada), a transfer-student, realizes that some bullies stole her shoes from her locker. It has not been the first act of bullying she has been confronted with, but this time, after a confrontation with her bullies and their ringleader Taeko Oguro (Rinka Otani), she ends up going home drenched in mud.
At school, only Mitsuru Aiba (Hiroya Shimizu), another transferred student, supports her, even though he is not able to change the situation by any means (Narra-note 1). On the contrary, the bullying only gets worse. Then, one day, a fire breaks out at the home of the Mitsuru’s, killing her parents and leaving her sister severely injured. Haruka, emotionally traumatized, sees no other way out than to take revenge.
The narrative of Liverleaf concerns as much the enjoyment of bullying Nozaki and her family, which are branded foreign to the local community, as it concerns the exacting of revenge. But on a more radical level, the narrative exposes what could happen when the symbolic – language and law – fails to function, i.e. an explosion of enjoyment.
The dimension of problematic enjoyment – albeit still mediated by language – is already present in the bullying that precedes the tragic arson. Liverleaf beautifully reveals that bullying thrives on the imaginary axis – and affects the position of the bullied within a certain societal structure (Cine-note 2). As the image of Haruka Nozaki and her family is re-positioned as foreign (e.g. ugly, from Tokyo, …) with respect to the sameness of the ego-images of the bullies and their childhood-friends, the bullies are able to exploit Nozaki’s image for their own enjoyment (Narra-note 2). It is great to see that Naito succeeds to bring the disturbing dimension of the enjoyment of these bullies sensible to the fore. In fact, the narrative underscores that more than the act of bullying as such the enjoyment attached to this act is repulsive (Narra-note 3).
By delineating boredom, jealousy due to affairs of the heart, and parental abuse as main reasons for students to search their self-satisfying enjoyment in psychologic and physical violence, Liverleaf provides a rather bleak outlook on Japanese youth living in more rural areas (Narra-note 4, Society-note 1). And in a more general sense, Liverleaf provides, most notably through the character of Minami-sensei, a rather bleak outlook on Japanese society as such. While her unwillingness to take the bullying seriously and her explicit ignoring of the bullying as it happens in her very presence – the latter obviously dramatized – reveals her lack of authority and her own fear, it also evokes the preoccupation of teachers with securing the image of the school in general and the image of themselves as teachers in particular.
The shift in Haruka’s subjective position, from passively being bullied to actively taking revenge, is fundamentally caused by the very failure of the teachers to take the act of being bullied and the subjective effects it causes seriously. As her imaginary ego breaks, the symbolic societal structures fail to mend, the only solution Haruka is given is to respond to the real, i.e. the fire that destroyed her family constellation, with the real, i.e. the exacting of revenge. The real becomes Haruka’s own way of mending her shattered subjectivity. But unbeknownst to her, the fire has a fundamental effect on almost everyone involved, as the transgression of the symbolic law towards violent enjoyment becomes the rule.
The framing of the real of violence is even more confronting and disturbing than the framing of the enjoyment attached to bullying, as the narrative shows the violence – with blood and decapitations – in an explicit manner. By showing her violent revenge and the violence of others in a more objective way, Naito succeeds in empowering the depressing and hopeless atmosphere that was already present in the narrative to an extremely sensible level. But while the abundance of violence could have buried the societal problem of bullying, the well thought-out structure – flashbacks return to the central act of arson and the context of other characters is further explored, evoking their internal subjective problems that underlie their behaviour – makes sure that the problematic and complex nature of bullying remains lingering throughout the narrative.
The cinematography of Liverleaf is a rather complex mix of fixed shots, semi-fixed shots, and moving shots – often following shots that follow Nozaki or people, like Aiba, that move in relation to her within the narrative space (Cine-note 2). Even though the framing of the narrative space feels somewhat distant at first – allowing the enjoyment of bullies to be sensible felt, the narrative, subtly puts emphasis on the emotional effects bullying can have.
By blending following shots and semi-fixed shots – shots with a slight shakiness – into the cinematographical mix, Naito succesfully communicates that, within the narrative space, Nozaki’s emotional and subjective trajectory is the main focal element for the spectator to orient himself in the unfolding narrative. Other points of orientation, each emphasized in the same cinematographical way, are present as well, e.g. Taeko, Rumi, Aiba, … . While these temporary orientation points generally aim to evoke the various subjective causes for their behaviour case per case, Naito is able, in Rumi’s case, to re-affirm the problematic nature of bullying and its (albeit dramatized) subjective effects.
There are some interesting elements (like the vertical moving shot, moments of slow-motion, and the subtle zoom-out) to be noted in the cinematography. These shots, as they are uncommon given the established cinematographical continuity, infuse the narrative space with a certain uneasiness, a certain reminder of the fact that things will go wrong.
The music in the narrative underlines this fact too, as short musical moments serve as subtle precursors for bad things to come, like the change in Nozaki’s subjective position. When this subjective change finally happens, the musical score, changing to a lighter tone in this case, subtly evoking feelings of liberation – the liberation from her subjective impasse.
Even though Liverleaf presents an over-the-top and unrealistic narrative, it successfully evades turning into something ridiculous. This is entirely due to Eisuke Naito’s directing by which he makes sure that the actors/actresses turn their characters into more than just caricatures. Furthermore, due to the thoughtful way the narrative is structured, Naito’s narrative does not fail in bringing the problem of bullying within Japanese society sensible to the fore.
While Liverleaf show the fantasized effects of what would happen when the path of transgressing the law has become the easiest route to take, it also serves as a timely reminder that Japanese society has to take bullying and its effects more seriously. Let us just hope that this reminder does not get buried underneath the abundance of blood in the narrative or any enjoyment the spectator might feel by seeing the myriad of violent acts.
Narra-note 1: Despite the fact that only three girls actively bully Nozaki, there is no attempt from other students or teachers to stop the bullying as such, even not from Aiba. It only reveals that every student is an accomplice to the bullying as such
Taeko, the ringleader, is always around when the bullying happens, but remains, in most cases rather uninvolved in the actual act. If she does get involved in the act of bullying, Taeko, in contrast to the other female bullies, does not show any visible enjoyment.
Narra-note 2: In a very subtle way Minami-sensei, who is part of the community, re-affirms the foreignness of Haruka by saying that “her” students do not bully.
Narra-note 3: It is also important to note that the the female bullies also target another student, Rumi, and hold power over her. Once again, the enjoyment that the act of bullying causes and the fundamental shift of turning a subject foreign to a certain sameness are underlined.
The relation between Taeko and Rumi forms an important narrative thread – giving the narrative even more depth. One that also gets its violent conclusion as the narrative progresses.
Narra-note 4: Even Aiba, the one that promised to protect Haruka, has a problematic subjectivity. Through his subjectivity the effects of parental abuse – in both meanings – are even more sensibly highlighted.
Society-note 1: The fact that it remains problematic to express one’s subjective problems within Japanese society is subtle touched upon. In Japan, there is no true culture of expressing one’s uchi so that the subjective problems one has can be analyzed.
Cine-note 1: Naito frames the speech-exchanges in a naturalistic way – with attention to silences between enunciations. The naturalistic framing highlights the distancing effects speech (in the imaginary register) can have and how speech can be communicative of the distance existing between subjects.
Cine-note 2: While following shots are mainly used to highlight emotion and to underline Haruka as the main focal point of the narrative, following shots are also applied in framing the act of bullying as such. Nevertheless, the use of following shots in this context feels more like an easy way to add diversity to the cinematography, instead of being a deliberate choice that aims to communicate something to the spectator.