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Gaichu (Harmful Insect) (2001): Coming of Age Is Universal

Gaichu (Akihiko Shiota, 2001)

(note: review originally published 29 November 2008)

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The movie its distributor saw as “too Japanese” for the western market… and has subsequently never released outside Asia.

It would be tempting to see Gaichu (known in the west as Harmful Insect), Akihiko Shiota’s fourth (and probably best-known) film, as a kind of Japanese version of American Beauty, but focused on Thora Birch rather than Kevin Spacey. And while there’s certainly an element of alienation here that every girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen is more than likely to empathize with, and while American Beauty‘s unforgettable opening line casts a (relatively unsuccessful) pall over that picture, Gaichu finds nooks and crannies of desperation and depression that Sam Mendes has nightmares about.

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In most cultures, you would look at this picture and think, “schoolgirls! HAWT!” But since this is Japan, you look at this picture and think “OMG they’re going to turn into schoolgirl zombies and EAT MY FACE.”

Sachiko (Tomie: The Forbidden Fruit‘s Aoi Miyazaki) is a twelve-year-old public school student in modern-day Japan. As the movie opens, we see her mother attempting suicide. You can tell this is not going to be a happy film, though there’s an undeniable streak of (very, very) black comedy running through it; it makes the anger and outrage all the more piquant. What Shiyota and writer Kiyono Yayoi (who, it seems, has never written another screenplay) are trying to get across in this slice-of-life drama is the almost complete indifference of Japanese society toward schoolgirls, or so it seemed to me; Sachiko is wrapped up in her own problems, yes, but the insular world of the schoolgirls is the lynchpin in the movie’s most startling scene (and one I’ll talk about at length in a few minutes). Adults exist in this movie, and some of them even try, in their ineffectual ways, to reach out to Sachiko (the movie’s most notable face, Audition‘s Eihi Shiina, is one of them), but when the day is over, they have only themselves upon which to rely.

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Audition beauty Eihi Shiina: the hottest teacher you never had

The scene I talked about earlier is absolutely stunning, and says a great deal about why it is that Japan’s filmmakers keep blowing us Americans away when we make the same kinds of movies. Sachiko is alone in the house with her mom’s boyfriend of the week, who wanders into the kitchen with a roll of duct tape. He smiles at Sachiko. She looks a bit uncomfortable, but smiles back. He looks away, at the wall, at the corner. The roll of duct tape is constantly in the scene. He looks back at her, still smiling. It all sounds pedestrian when I write it out like that, but the scene’s composition is phenomenal; the tension just keeps building, because the viewer has no idea what’s going on with this guy. There are no words in the entire scene (the movie, in fact, has very little dialogue throughout); everything is conveyed through facial expression and camera angle. And, of course, Shiota’s insistence on keeping our eyes glued to that roll of duct tape.

Gaichu is a very tough movie to get ahold of if you happen to be in the west; worse, no official DVD release of it contains English subtitles. They can be found at subtitle sites, with the translation done by fans, if you have an all-region DVD player in your computer and are willing to pay the insane shipping costs to buy it straight from Japan. That said, in my opinion, Gaichu is well worth whatever the cost, especially if you’re an American Beauty fan; while there’s not much of a comparison to be actually made between the two films, I can certainly see AB‘s fanbase going gaga over this one. And rightly so; it’s a fantastic piece of work. Do whatever you must to see this. **** ½

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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