16:00 - 8th June 2014, by Calum Waddell


"Out of all living things, I actually like humans the least"
Schoolyards and classrooms have been the setting for some of Japan's most acclaimed contemporary cinema - from the brutal Battle Royale (2000) to the more subdued chills of Confessions (2010). This month, NEO has the 'pleasure' of looking at Shady - the debut offering from filmmaker-to-watch Ryohei Watanabe - which highlights the troubled relationship between two teenage high school girls.

And when we say 'troubled' we really mean 'this all ends in blood and tears'...

That said, for its first half an hour, there is no indication that Shady is going to be anything but a typical 'coming of age' drama - wherein an attractive pupil called Izumi (Izumi Okamura), something of a loner, becomes attached to a bullied classmate called Kumada (Mimpi *β). Unfortunately for Kumada, what begins as a blossoming and close knit companionship between the two soon begins to turn sour - but, at least at first, everything seems to be ideal. Izumi, who is the most beautiful girl in school, seems unable to make friends with the other girls due to her glamorous appearance - whilst Kumada is bullied because her surname translates as 'rice paddy bear' (her nickname has become 'Pooh').

Together the two smoke, charge down the school corridors, spend their evenings together and, gradually, Izumi begins to make sexual moves towards her closest confidant. Kumada does not resist this - but feels some confusion about where the relationship with her friend is going. Meanwhile, the police are on the search for a missing schoolgirl - plastering posters for information all around town. Obviously Watanabe, who also wrote the film, wants us to understand that the disappearance is related, in some form, to the secretive Izumi - but he keeps the tension and mystery building for the bulk of Shady's 94 minute running time. Added details only tease the tragedy that is about to unfold: Izumi's large, but deserted, house, her interest in caged animals and her open questioning of human nature and dominance over other species. "Men are moved by two levers only— fear and self interest", she tells Kumada - quoting Napoleon - and hinting at a plan that is far more fearful than her naïve friend can ever comprehend.

It would be wrong to spoil where Shady goes with this relationship between the two girls. Watanabe has a lot resting on his surprise final reel, and the horrors that unfold therein, but audiences will doubtlessly know that blood is going to be spilled. Izumi's continued seduction of a hesitant but accommodating Kumada is relentless - and all the more palatable because the young actresses are absolutely first class throughout in portraying the hormones, confusion, difficulties and awkwardness of puberty and first-time sexual encounters.

Ultimately, Kumada eventually wants to get away, but doesn't know quite how to free herself from her only friend (or who to tell when she suspects a smirking Izumi has cooked and fed her the budgie that she loves) - and this factor is what makes the final half hour of Shady as powerful as it is. However, Watanabe does not quite deliver the goods in the way one might hope. Rather than an eventual breakdown of trust, and the truth behind the ever-cute - but clearly crazy - Izumi, the filmmaker gives us something of an anti-climax. As far as psycho-sexual matriarchs go, Shady actually turns out to have one of the less terrifying in cinematic history - which is disappointing given the strong and sincere build-up to what, one presumes, Watanabe expects to be a shattering revelation. Instead, Shady reaches a finale that, whilst involving sharp objects and some spurting arteries, never quite has one peering from between their fingers. This is a shame, because the potential is clearly there - Izumi is mysteriously malevolent and her final descent into homicidal horrors should be breathtakingly awful. Alas, this is no Audition, and the conclusive carnage is treated just a bit too tenderly.

That said, what is here is still effective - make no mistake about that. Buoyed by a sterling cast, and some evocative cinematography, Watanabe reminds us that growing up is never easy, and that schoolyard neglect and tension is something that resonates internationally. The two figures of our identification, Izumi and Kumada, are fleshed out and believable, so much so that their eventual fall out succeeds in hitting us in the heart. We come to like these two girls and to enjoy their company. This element, especially coming from a young male director (just 24 years when Shady was made), is worthy of obvious applause.

Apparently produced for only £10,000, Shady is a wonder - it is a story that is extremely well told and frequently attractive to look at. Whilst its climax could have benefited from more aesthetic aggression, this is still a singularly staged fright-film from The Land of the Rising Sun, and one that creeps into the conscience thanks to a resonant portrayal of alienation and teenaged ugliness. A promising debut, then, and a psycho-shocker that heralds the arrival of - we hope - a resurrection in troubled cinematic Japanese femme fatales going off the deep end.

Now, where's that Audition sequel?

Never quite as gruelling as it should be but nevertheless interesting and infectious - Shady is a horror weirdie that is well worth viewing.
SCORE: 3.5/5
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