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A mellow and meditative film on tragedy and how people cope with loss...
Hiroki Ryuichi's "River" is a quiet and somber film reflecting on two recent Japanese tragedies and their lingering impacts on those who were directly effected by them.
When asking foreign tourists where they would most like to visit while in Tokyo, along with Roppongi, Harajuku and Shinjuku, most people would invariably mention "Electric Town" Akihabara, a small district near Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. Akihabara or simply "Akihaba" is well known as being the hub for Japanese pop culture and budget electronic brand goods and "Otaku"(specialized) fandom. A haven for Anime, manga, video-game and electronic "maniacs/geeks" Akihaba was a place fan-boys could proudly call their own. That fun image of a modern day dreamland was forever shattered one Sunday, June 8, 2008 when disgruntled ex-auto mechanic and social outcast Tomohiro Kato drove a truck into the crowded intersection of Kanda Myojin and Chuo streets fronting the Sofmap electronics store and proceeded to randomly stab innocent bystanders caught in the resulting chaos. In total seven people were killed by Kato with an additional 10 injured. This senseless attack shocked the nation of Japan and shook public confidence in what was traditionally considered a society safe from violent crimes of this type.
Hiroki's film takes a fictionalized look at the impact this event had on the life of a young woman Hikari (Renbutsu Misako), whose boyfriend Kenji was murdered in the attack. After shutting herself off from the world for months, Hikari has only recently started to recover from the shock of his death. She has even found the courage to visit the intersection in Akihaba where he died. During her weekly visits to Akihaba she encounters a number of interesting individuals among them a street photographer (Nakamura Mami), a sidewalk performer (Quinka,with a Yawn), a Maid Cafe owner and his top maid (Taguchi Tomorrow and Nahami) and a electronic parts street peddler (Kobayashi Yuto). She forms a strong bond with the street peddler in particular as he is also recovering from the impact the 2011 Tohoku Tsunami and Earthquake had on his hometown in Fukushima. Through these random encounters Hikari finally finds the strength to move on and takes a symbolic ride on the Kanda River to mark this point in her life while saying goodbye to Kenji.
Hiroki's "River" is a somewhat more subdued film than his previous works such as "Vibrator" and "Tokyo Trash Baby" and has a very quiet, reserved almost tranquil tone about it. Shot in a somewhat documentary style, "River" relies heavily on dialog to move its story narrative and there's a lot of character self-reflection in the film. Hiroki's deliberate slow pacing of the film may test the patience of some audience members as will the long tracking shots of Renbutsu's Hikari character aimlessly walking the streets of Akihaba.
Renbutsu is cute in her role as Hikari and has a likable charm. Oddly, she doesn't have that much dialog in the film as most of the time Renbutsu's character is merely reacting to those around her or quietly making observations about life in Akihaba. Her one notable lengthy dialog about questioning 'the reality of life' does come off as a bit heavy-handed but connects with the overall theme of the film - life goes on even amid tragedy.
"River" ends with Quinka,with a Yawn's A cappella cover of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's iconic "Moon River" made famous by Audrey Heburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's". Its inclusion here is appropriate enough both symbolically and thematically. As Hikari rides down the Kanda River (a promise she made to do with Kenji while he was still alive), she longs for a more carefree future, one in which she can realize her dreams and live life to its fullest again as the lyrics go "There's such a lot of world to see/We're after the same rainbow's end".
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