Starring: Fumi Nikaidô, Ryo Yoshizawa, Shuhei Uesugi
Director: Isao Yukisada
Running Time: 118 mins
River’s Edge is a Japanese film about the tumultuous period in the lives of a group of high school students, all living around the mystery and tension surrounding a dead body that washed up on the side of the river.
With a striking and very modern style that’s highly reminiscent of American independent film, River’s Edge is an enthralling and unsettling watch throughout, combining the troubles of high school students with a darker atmosphere that creates brilliant uneasiness and unpredictability. Furthered by a fantastic lead turn from Fumi Nikaidô, the film grabs you right the way through, and even though it may takes things a little too far at times, it’s a hugely riveting watch nonetheless.
Let’s start off with that style, though. If you know modern Japanese cinema, then you’ll know that this darker indie vibe isn’t anything entirely out of the ordinary. However, the reason that this film is so much more striking than most Japanese indie fare is because of how it uses the style and techniques seen more commonly in American indie cinema, and by blending that with a story that’s more Japanese, it makes for a really fascinating and even surprising watch.
When I say American indie style, the film’s old-school aspect ratio is reminiscent of any movie out of A24’s copybook (First Reformed, Mid90s, A Ghost Story etc.), while its combination of dark and/or dim lighting with static, long-held camerawork is something that you really don’t see to the same extent in more native Japanese independent films. The two styles may share characteristics here and there, but this is the first film I’ve seen that really puts them together, which is what makes River’s Edge just so striking.
Of course, we can’t be talking about all style over substance, so I’m glad to say that there is some good depth and intrigue to the story here as well. The visuals and indie style are definitely what makes the film so striking and engrossing from the start, and director Isao Yukisada does a great job to use that to give the movie an unsettling atmosphere, but the story too has a lot to focus on.
Now, as I said earlier, this film’s story and premise is a lot heavier on the Japanese style of things than the American. That’s not only because it’s set in a high school (there are few countries that make more high school movies than Japan), but also because of its smaller-scale nature, focusing on the struggles of a few individuals, without then taking the story to a wider social context, as many American films would.
That’s not to say that River’s Edge has no social conscience, and its portrayals of teenage depression, eating disorders, bullying, harrassment and more are all particularly striking, but in the context of the film in and of itself, the problems are contained almost entirely to the people who suffer from them.
In that, the emotional turmoil and frustration that grows and grows throughout is even more palpable, with each of the characters on the verge of blowing at different points of the story, and although I must say that the screenplay takes things a little too far beyond the initially grounded story in the final act, it’s certainly an engrossing and often even genuinely powerful plot to follow throughout.
And then finally, we come to the performances, which are excellent across the board, with the five or six key leads all putting in emotionally striking and still grounded and relatable turns. They all work brilliantly together with their complex web of relationships, but the one who stands out above all else has to be Fumi Nikaidô.
She plays Haruna, arguably the most level-headed and relaxed of the group of characters in turmoil, and her performance, while still dramatically riveting and emotionally enthralling, is a brilliant island of pure calm and assurance in the middle of an increasingly tumultuous (and even insane) sea of teenage drama.
They always say that the best form of acting is not to act at all, but Nikaidô brilliantly walks the line between a simple, level-headed character and one that fits in well with some of the more hyperbolic drama surrounding her, a balance that’s really difficult to achieve, yet works wonders when it comes together, and as such she proves an absolutely fantastic lead to follow throughout.
Overall, I was really quite impressed with River’s Edge. A stylistically striking film that combines modern American indie techniques with the best form of contemporary Japanese storytelling, it grabs you from the first moment with its unsettling and dark atmosphere, and pulls you deeper with its riveting emotional drama throughout. It may take things a little too far off the ground in its latter stages, which hurts the pure power of it all, but with great directing and a collection of excellent performances, it proves a thoroughly engrossing and memorable watch regardless, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.7.