"Director Sono Sion had already written his adaptation of the 2001 manga comic Himizu, a shrill teenage wail of existential discomfort, when on March 11 an earthquake and tsunami devastated northern Japan." Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter: "His intuition to rewrite it in light of those tragic events brings poignant meaning to a nearly unwatchable adaptation of a genre comic targeted at Japanese teens. This bizarre overlay of styles and moods is a daring gamble that somehow heightens understanding of Japan's disaster, as though the only possible aesthetic approach was via cinema of the absurd."
Boyd van Hoeij in Variety: "Never a very disciplined filmmaker, whether in terms of running time or thematic coherence, Sono's films have a frayed quality to them that betrays both his earlier calling as a poet — for whom juxtaposition, repetition and effect can take precedence over more classical narrative logic — and the speed with which he makes films (his sexy and violent Guilty of Romance preemed in Cannes earlier this year). His latest, named after a mole species endemic to Japan, focuses on two junior-high kids for whom sex is uncharted territory, though physical brutality occurs throughout. Set in the aftermath of the disaster, the leads embody innocence defiled by natural, familial and societal violence. In a departure from the manga, these tainted pure souls also represent the future of the nation for whom it's important to have aspirations."
"We're not going to beat around the bush here," announces Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist. "We hated the experience of watching the vast majority of Himizu. Hated it. If we weren't reviewing it, we might have walked out (as plenty did). Much of the film is played at a ludicrously high pitch, with most of the dialogue shouted or screeched, the first half of the film consists principally of the main characters receiving a series of beatings (and never fighting back), set against near-unrelenting rain, the tone wavers in a second from grim desperation to slapstick comedy, and the music mostly consists of classical pieces of crashing obviousness… And yet as soon as the film was over, we found ourselves warming to it — perhaps initially because the experience of watching it was so unpleasant, but warming nonetheless. And it lingered in our minds, even with other films screened in the intervening time. Now, 24 hours later, we're still not doing cartwheels over it, but we're also happy to acknowledge that it's an important, and fitfully great, picture."
"Too quirky in the end for its own good," finds Lee Marshall in Screen, but, that said: "There's always something to like in Sono's films, and here perhaps the standout feature is the performance of the two young leads, and the way the script shifts their relationship from cartoonish parody to affecting love story. Shota Sometani (also seen this year in Locarno Special Jury Prize winner Tokyo Park) plays Sumida, a junior high school boy who lives in a boat rental shack by the side of a lake with his sluttish, uncaring mother; Sumida's drunkard of a father [Ken Mitsuishi] stops by only to borrow or steal money and beat his son up. One of Sumida's classmates, pretty, pert and talkative Chazawa ([Fumi] Nikaidou, playing it up with cutesy perkiness but also capable of emotional depth), has a crush on him. She also has her own problems at home — in one of the film's more bizarre inventions, she has to deal with parents who don't so much neglect their daughter as want to get rid of her — which is why they're building an elaborate scaffold in the living room…. Sometani's steadily powerful performance as a young man driven to violence, despair and the edge of madness by the treatment he has received from the adult world does a lot to glues the film's disparate plot strands and tonal incongruities together."
Update, 9/8: An 8.0 from Eugenio Renzi at Independencia.
Update, 9/12: Fandor's Kevin B Lee: "Sion's filmmaking itself is pretty maddening, a slapdash onslaught of high-pitched drama and hyperbolic violence, garnished with gimmicky effects and a classical hits score to provide profundity as instantly as Cup-a-Noodles. Defenders can claim Sion's whole approach as one invoking unapologetic adolescence; by that score the two young leads make a more valiant effort, given the emotional cartwheels Sion has them turn, it's remarkable that they are what grounds the viewer in Sion's histrionic maelstrom."
Update, 9/15: "After watching Cold Fish and Himizu, I'm still not sure I can call Sono a great filmmaker," writes Noel Murray at the AV Club. "His style is all over the map — sometimes Lynchian, sometimes Truffaut-like, sometimes reminiscent of Takashi Miike — and he's not exactly big on subtlety. But there's something compellingly punk rock about his vision of a life dominated by mud, blood, bruises, rain and radiation."
Update, 9/18: "It's filled with rage and confusion and anger and the disaster is never far from anyone's thoughts — but Sono uses this to convey his message." Bob Turnbull at Toronto J-Film Pow Wow: "It's a simple one: Don't give up, don't ever give up, always have a dream and keep pushing forward. How much you'll enjoy the film is hard to say as it can try your patience with its remarkable intensity, but its message is clear and easily embraced."
Himizu is competing in Venice and will screen in Toronto. If you're headed to Toronto, tiffr is a simple yet powerful way to schedule your festival. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.