Bad Boys for Life
It is a rainy day in nineteen-twenty-something Japan and everyone walking outside has an umbrella. Everyone but teenage boy Hekiro. Apparently, his umbrella keeps breaking, so he no longer bothers. He notices his older sister Gen trying to catch up with him and…eventually, stops so that she can meet him and hand him the umbrella that she had been carrying. He refuses to take it, saying that it is a woman’s umbrella. She apologizes, but he tells her that none of this is her fault. He reserves his ire their parents, especially their stepmother. When Gen tries to get him to stop talking bad about her, he runs off, again without an umbrella.
It is a different day and Gen goes shopping. For some reason, she gets accused of shoplifting. An employee tries to take her past a bunch of other customers to a backroom. She demands to have this out in public, but he pulls her into the backroom anyways. Gen is highly uncooperative, until the main guy threatens to whip her. The guy changes his tune pretty quickly when he sees that the contents of her bag match her receipt. Another employee apologizes to her and offers to let her exit out the back. She seems to accept the offer, but notes that it lets the store maintain the narrative that she was a thief to the rest of the customers.
Gen returns home to see Hekiro lying on the riverbank outside. Their stepmother has a visitor from her church, Mrs. Tanuma, who is there to basically help justify her resentments towards her stepchildren, particularly Hekiro. So, Gen and Hekiro walk around outside while waiting for the visitor to leave. It does not take long for Hekiro to start needling and provoking Gen, laughing when she gets irritated. She tells him about getting falsely accused of shoplifting. Hekiro says that their stepmother should have gone, as the items were mostly for her, but that she makes Gen do everything.
Speaking of Gen doing everything, she comes home late in the evening with the shopping. Her stepmother grills her about having encountered Mrs. Tanuma the other day while getting a fountain pen fixed. She accuses Gen of talking about her behind her back, and complaining that the errands that she does for her stepmother makes her return home late. Gen retorts that she said no such thing, that Mrs. Tanuma is lying. Her stepmother refuses to believe that her friend and fellow Christian could be lying, so it is Gen who is wrong, snapping at her instead of showing remorse. Oh what is a poor stepmother to do with such terrible children? Also, all of those errands DO make Gen come home late.
Plus, she has to fix up all of the clothes while everyone else is asleep. Well, she doesn’t have to, but she does, so that Hekiro does not look weird around his friends with clothes that actually fit properly. A barely awake Hekiro tells her that she is not really all that great at sewing. Well, no one taught her. Hekiro apologizes for making trouble and offers to help…sort of. Well, not really. He promises to help out the next day.
Well, Hekiro’s friends show up the next day, so he broke his promise to help, as Gen had predicted. She does try to prevent him from taking a jackknife with him, but ultimately fails. He claims that his reputation as a delinquent is as undeserved as her reputation as a shoplifter.
Of course, the gang robs a store. Hekiro, too slow and not too smart, gets caught. His father and stepmother eventually work things out with the police, but the matter is not over. Due to this and incidents of violence that Hekiro claims were not his fault, his Christian school has expelled him. Hekiro says that the robbery was just a prank, not a crime. It was a joke…? As if doing it for the lulz instead of greed or need means anything in the eyes of the law. Friggin’ edgelord logic here. Gen tries to meet him halfway, but he still cannot accept that he did anything wrong.
Meanwhile, their stepmother is complaining to their father about how this incident has ruined her reputation. How the police called her negligent when Hekiro is not even her biological son. Their father remains silent; maybe listening, maybe not. During dinner, he admits to being somewhat complicit in Hekiro’s behavior, but denies that his lenience is the principle cause for his delinquency. When he tries to talk about practical matters, his wife thinks that he is blaming her for not doing anything around the house, and she brings up her rheumatism. He mentions that Gen has been helping out, but is also young and needs guidance. Surely, rheumatism will not prevent that. But when Hekiro arrives and says that he will enroll in a Buddhist school, the stepmother is aghast. This attack on God overrides all practical matters.
Gen is walking home one day when a man approaches her; a man who had been talking with Hekiro earlier. He is a police officer, who became acquainted with Hekiro after the robbery. He assures her that Hekiro is not in trouble, but it is clear that he is trying to intimidate the both of them. Gen confronts Hekiro about the officer when he gets home. Why was he there? Did Hekiro do something? Hekiro gets mad, saying that she is no better than the cop.
The cop rather sketchily approaches Hekiro as she is leaving her school, and acts like it is a total coincidence that they met. He wants to ask her questions about her brother, but not here. He gives her his card, and asks her to walk with him. They go on a railcar and the cop, Shimizu Rokuro, talks about her father’s writings, all the while standing uncomfortably close to her.
Hekiro comes home to find Gen looking through his stuff. Is she looking for evidence that he stole something? She says that she is just cleaning the room. He asks her about the cop. Is he harassing her? What does he want? Hekiro theorizes that Rokuro is trying to seduce her and take her money, and starts teasing her when she dismisses the possibility. He claims that her plain appearance, unpleasant personality, and vulnerable social status makes her a prime target for seduction. Gen gets made and pushes Hekiro out of his own room.
One day, Gen is walking outside and Rokuro follows her. She tries to discreetly get away from him, but it does not work. He says that he wants to talk to her about her brother’s future and has a request for her father. They stop at a temple and he makes his pitch, but when Gen notices something off about him, she tries to leave. He holds her down and…it looks like he is about to force himself on her, when a large group of ducks waddle through, distracting him long enough for her to break free and run off.
Hekiro returns home to find Gen looking over a love letter. From whom? She tosses it before he can find out. Apparently, though, he knew about Rokuro and the ducks. Gen figures that it was actually Hekiro’s delinquent gang friends who sent all of the ducks her way. Hekiro tells her not to make him have to do that again. She does not thank him, instead telling him to mind his business.
Gen is walking outside to get some medicine for her stepmother when she is approached by a young man. He claims to be the one who has been sending her love letters. Before they can talk much, Hekiro and four friends from his new school run over and run him off.
I suppose that, before I talk about anything else, I should mention that this movie used something called bleach bypass to give it a desaturated look. I guess that it is supposed to make it look more like the 1920s. Personally, I did not notice any difference, but people have said that it was the first to do this, so…yeah.
This movie was based on the novel Otōto, or My Little Brother, by Kōda Aya. I do not know much about her or the novel, but I get the impression that much of her works were semi-autobiographical, centered around her struggles to connect with her father, a noted writer of the Meiji era. She did have a brother, but he died when she was very young, along with her mother and sister. So, while I am not sure if the stepmother in the movie was fictional, the titular brother certainly was.
So, what is this movie about? I guess that one could look at it as the struggle to maintain a family when it is already coming apart. But it also seems like a family where the inability of the members to abide by gender roles puts them at constant odds with each other.
The father, while not absent, is completely distant. He is a non-entity; he might as well not be there. Just like Aya’s father, he is a writer. And most of his time is spent in his room writing or trying to write. His parenting style is…well, not really there. He is off in his own world. He may notice the strife in his own house, but he does little about it. Neither Gen or Hekiro engage with him much, perhaps because they do not expect him to do anything for them or to them, except maybe if money is involved. Just like all fathers, he is expected to bring in the money and…not much else. He can keep the family secure in their…uh…I’ll say middle-y class lifestyle, but what that signifies is of little interest to him. During at least one scene where other characters are arguing intensely, the camera shifts to the father in his study, doing his best to ignore the commotion.
The burden of parenting falls upon the stepmother. What happened to the original mother is unclear, but she probably died. The stepmother is not…wicked…but wow is she intolerable. Rheumatism has made life painful for her and it is difficult for her to do much, so she does not walk unless it is absolutely necessary, which is usually when she has to bail out Hekiro. Since the father is too wrapped up in his own world to pick up the slack, all is left to Gen. The pain and the feeling of uselessness leads to resentment. I do not remember quite when she married the father or when she started suffering from rheumatism, but it appears that it has relegated her to giving orders to Gen and complaining about how bad the children are. She says that he tries to treat the children as her own blood, but that may not mean what she thinks it does. While acknowledging that Hekiro is worse, she maintains some bitterness towards Gen for her supposedly acting hateful when she was younger, and is perfectly fine with assuming the worst about her. She claims to be a Christian, but her Christian behavior seems to extend more to giving the other family members grief whenever they do something not suitably Christian rather than…forgiveness.
How bad are the children? Hekiro is a wild child. Since, he is largely fictional, I cannot say whether any of his characterization was inspired by Rebel Without a Cause, which was released around a year before the novel was. How long has Hekiro been this way? It is uncertain, but I get the impression that it started before the incident that got labeled him a delinquent. He pals around with a gang of other delinquents, the ones who had beaten him up after that incident. He gets in trouble with them and alone. Stealing, property damage, unpaid debts. Why is he like this? Is it because society already thinks the worst of him? Is it because his father does not lay the hammer down? Is it because his mother is dead? Is it because his stepmother is intolerable? Is it because he is just a bad seed? Is it because he has this compulsive need to suffer in anger and lash out at the world? Does he prefer to be antagonistic over being happy? Is it because he knows that his sister will eventually get him out of whatever mess he got himself into?
Oh, Gen…poor poor Gen. She appears to be the only one trying to keep the family functioning on a day-to-day basis. And while she does not get into as much trouble as her wayward brother does, trouble seems to find her. She gets falsely accused of stealing when she is simply buying stuff that her stepmother needs. She gets falsely accused of complaining about her stepmother regarding something that she would have had every right to complain about. But her efforts gets her no thanks. Her stepmother calls her ungrateful for…I don’t know what…while showing no gratitude towards Gen for putting up with all of this. Like the time when her stepmother has her make dinner, does not partake in the dinner, and then calls her ungrateful for starting to eat without saying grace. Hekiro acknowledges that she helps him out, but is just as likely to treat her efforts with contempt as with something resembling thanks. And when he does offer to help out, it is useless. One time, when she shows up for something involving Hekiro, the other person acts like it is her fault that his parents did not show up instead. Cannot catch a break.
The thing is, Gen will do what she considers to be her duty with little complaint. Doing what her stepmother cannot is her duty, regardless of whether it is fair. Doing chores that are considered woman’s work is what she will do, even if she has never been properly taught. However, she will not do what she feels are beyond her obligations, whether that be cooperating with men falsely accusing her of a crime or cooperating with a creep who is trying to take advantage of her. And rather than being meek and demure, she is highly outspoken, and will stand up for herself when she feels wronged, especially in regards to her reputation. Still, she will not air her grievances in front of random people. So, while she did make a public scene when she was initially being roughly treated in the department store, she agreed to leave privately when she was proven innocent.
Gen’s dedication to her family, and particularly her brother, has left her little time for herself. To think about what she wants and what the future holds for her. And, in terms of the movie, that basically means romance. She is a 17-year-old at the start of the movie, but it is unclear just how much time has passed between then and the end. But, even towards the beginning, she is considered of marrying age. During that time, romantic prospects come and go. She never looks at Rokuro as a possible husband, going along with him only for the sake of Hekiro’s freedom and she tries to pull away immediately when she senses that he is lying about who he is. Perhaps the guy who sent the love letters could have had a chance, but Hekiro and his friends humiliate the guy before Gen can even think for herself. Despite their misgivings about Gen’s qualities as a woman, her stepmother and Mrs. Tanuma do try to find matches for her, matches who may be able to put up with her flaws. Gen is not interested.
Why is she not interested? Is it because she has no interest in marriage? Is it because she thinks that she is too young or not ready? Or is she afraid what will happen to the family if she gets married off? Her father will still provide money, sure. But there will be no one to do the household chores except for Hekiro…who will probably just run wild all the time without someone to regularly reign him in. Her self-sacrifice is not simply sacrificing her happiness or her freedom, she is basically sacrificing her own individual identity; her own sense of self. Not that that would be considered a bad thing in traditional Japan. I am not sure if this narrative was part of the original novel, but it is notable that Kōda Aya got divorced and moved back in with her father long before writing it. So, her take on romance was probably less than romantic.
Without spoiling too much, I will say that something happens that puts everything in perspective and forces all four family members to refocus their priorities. They have to reevaluate what they mean to each other and what they can do, to reflect on how they have been towards each other and how they are as people. And what is the conclusion? Well, it actually may seem a bit abrupt, but I suppose that the movie was chronically an era of this family, with the next era being for another story.
I guess that…I don’t really have much else to say about the movie. Given my complete ignorance regarding the significance of the desaturated look, it is pretty clear that I know little about the technical aspects of film making. I did kind of notice, though, that the house often looked rather dark. People were sometimes hidden in shadows. It gives the movie a more ominous vibe than may have been intended. Then again, the lurid mystery thriller soundtrack suggests that it may have been deliberate. Are these people doomed? I am not sure how I feel about it, but it is certainly an interesting choice.
Some of you (yeah right) may recall that I talked about a movie last year called About Her Brother. It is not a remake, but it uses the barebones plot summary and themes as an influence, retooling the details and updating it for modern times. It is quite different, but also very good, a nice companion piece perhaps.
So…yeah. This is good.
WTF ASIA 139: Election (Hong Kong: 2005, approx. 100 minutes)
WTF ASIA 140: The Truth Beneath (South Korea: 2016, approx. 103 minutes)