White feathers falling from the ceiling like snowflakes, the camera revealing a heap of them on the furniture and, after a lateral movement, a woman who starts cutting her wrist with a small knife – this is the opening sequence of Harmful Insect (Gaichu, Japan, 2002). Filmed in total silence, the sequence combines lyricism and violence and sets the tone for Akihiko Shiota’s cinematic portrayal of his 13-year-old main protagonist Sachiko (Aoi Miyazaki).
It is only in one of the following sequences that the identity of the woman is revealed as Mrs Kita (Ryo), Sachiko’s unmarried mother. Three of Sachiko’s classmates, gossip about Sachiko and about her mother’s suicide attempt, and a little later, Sachiko is shown with her mother, the latter’s left wrist bandaged as visual confirmation of what was previously only suggested in image and dialogue.
Rumours serve as a means to put together a picture of Sachiko in a film in which much is alluded to rather than clearly revealed, frequently leaving the viewer guessing. Numerous sequences present everyday situations: Sachiko walking the streets, having dinner with her mother, changing a light bulb or reading in the library. The viewer is allowed glimpses of an ordinary life, but a life imbued with tragedy and a constant feeling of loss and lack of orientation. Abrupt cuts support this atmosphere of instability, and so do the shots of fragmented interiors filled with furniture and household objects. The slow rhythm of the narration and a soundtrack dominated by silence but also by the sounds of city streets or the wind blowing create a feeling of oppression that is highly appropriate to this portrayal of a disturbed schoolgirl.
Sachiko is depicted as an introverted girl who keeps her problems to herself and remains aloof from her fellow pupils. After her mother’s suicide attempt, she drops out of school. The camera underlines her isolation, filming her alone in the urban landscape or showing her at some distance from other students. She befriends Takao (Tetsu Sawaki), a young petty criminal and his acquaintance Kyuzo (Koji Ishikawa), a mentally retarded vagrant who lives in a shack on a run-down industrial estate. Her relationship with these two men living at the margins of society is an indication of her growing distance from the normality symbolized by school and family life.
However, Sachiko does have one friend at school – Natsuko (Yu Aoi) – who deeply cares about her. Natsuko defends her against the allegations of their gossiping classmates and tries desperately to reintegrate Sachiko into the group when she starts attending school again. In one shot, the two girls, hand in hand, walk past other pupils, who simply ignore them. Natsuko is even prepared to accept that the boy she is in love with wants to date Sachiko, and she is more worried than Mrs Kita about Sachiko’s absence from school. She is repeatedly shown persistently ringing the doorbell at the Kitas’ home, hoping that her friend will join her on her way to school. The full extent of Natsuko’s concern for Sachiko is revealed in her reaction when Sachiko’s mother is completely devastated after her new lover has tried to rape Sachiko and she is unable to comfort her daughter. In tears, Natsuko addresses Mrs Kita in an accusing tone: “Sachiko is in pain too. She is only a 7th grader. Why does she have to suffer so much?”
For a long time, Sachiko ignores her friend’s attempts to help her, having created for herself a niche with Takao, with whom she shares some carefree moments. This idyll ends abruptly when, instead of absconding with the young man to start a new life, she finds him dead in his apartment, apparently killed with a spanner. Some time previously, he was severely beaten and robbed by two thugs. After his death, Sachiko discovers drugs in a roll of peppermints that Takao gave her but except for the shots of the dead body, the spanner lying on the floor and the small quantity of drugs, no explanation is given for the young man’s tragic fate.
The gossip at school includes a first hint of a relationship between Sachiko and Mr Ogata (Seiichi Tanabe), her teacher former. Excerpts from letters between the two and a flashback showing Sachiko at Ogata’s home reveal that their relationship went far beyond the usual teacher/student one but only once is there a suggestion of a sexual relationship. Instead, the letters make it clear that Ogata is the person to whom Sachiko confides her innermost feelings, her anxieties and her doubts.
The fragments from these letters are presented as written texts in a number of inserts that interrupt the flow of the narration. For Sachiko, they also create a link to the outside world. They reveal that Mr Ogata has left his teaching job and now works at a nuclear power plant in the north of Japan and is thus far away from her. Rumours of an affair with an underage student have presumably prompted him to quit his job and start a new life in a different part of the country where nobody knows about his past.
The letters deal with Sachiko’s worries and her concern for others. In one of them she asks: “Is it true that happiness deserts anyone who tries to commit suicide? Does this mean that Mom can never be happy again?” They also reveal how much Ogata cares about her: “You are only 13. You should date boys of your age.”
The letters also contain references to fish, a topic that seems to fascinate Sachiko, who, in one sequence, is shown observing aquarium fish on display in a shop. In one of her letters, she mentions that the males of Betta fish squeeze the eggs out of the body of the females, and in his reply to her, Ogata describes how the males of this species fight each other. The insert with the remark on the fighting Betta fish appears just before Sachiko discovers the dead body of Takao, who has presumably been killed by yakuza or criminal rivals.
The species of fish referred to in the letters are closely connected with violence and sexuality, two themes given special emphasis in the film. Violence is manifested by Mrs Kita’s suicide attempt and by Takao’s murder. It is also suggested in the hostility exhibited by most of Sachiko’s classmates, who continually gossip about her and who do not understand Natsuko’s warm-hearted attitude, regarding Sachiko as not worthy of anyone’s attention. The urban environment itself is marked by an ugliness from which emerges a feeling of oppression that contributes to the latent violence throughout the film – empty streets, sordid industrial estates, Takao’s run-down apartment, Kyuzo’s shack made out of scrap. Frames in the frame create visual closures, suggesting how much the 13-year-old protagonist is trapped despite her desire to find a way out of her problems and build a life for herself on the threshold of adulthood.
The title “harmful insect” suggests that Sachiko’s disorientation could lead to violence directed against others or against herself. In order to help Takao when he is injured, she is prepared to take part in the staged accidents by means of which he makes some money, but she cannot bring herself to throw herself in front of a car. She is also prepared to sell her body to earn money for the injured Takao. However, when a man propositions her in front of a sex hotel, she panics and runs away. It is clear that Takao does not approve of Sachiko’s willingness to make money in this way or even knows nothing about it.
The close link between violence and sexuality is revealed in the sequence in which a student molests Sachiko in the street, repeatedly shouting “When’s your period?” and in another one when a middle-aged man follows her through the streets at night. This link between violence and sexuality culminates in the attempt to rape her by Tokugawa (Ryo Amamiya), her mother’s new lover.
Later in the film, Sachiko and the mentally retarded Kiyuzo take delight in the sparkling flames of the gas mixture she has learned about in her chemistry lessons at school. When the explosives that the two have created and used as Molotov cocktails set a house on fire, Sachiko flees in an attempt to join Ogata in the wintry north of Japan.
As a result of a series of unfortunate circumstances, they miss each other. While Sachiko is waiting for her former teacher in a coffee shop, she is approached by a young man (Yusuke Iseya), apparently a scout working for the sex industry. This is a clear reference to the increasing exploitation of young Japanese women in the flourishing pornography and prostitution business in a country in which male obsession with high school girls is common. In this sequence, it is the young man who does the talk, trying to coax Sachiko out of her natural reserve with a winning smile and a gentle voice.
Ogata arrives at the coffee shop too late and Sachiko has left in the young man’s car, apparently giving herself up to fate and despair. The motto on a flag at Sachiko’s school reads “Let’s make our way”. Sachiko’s way seems to lead to disaster and a bleak future in a society that ignores juvenile anxieties and in which young women are perceived as mere objects of lust.