When we were teenagers our world was small. It was comprised of a small group of friends, family and maybe the occasional sympathetic teacher. At the hub of this tiny little world was us - our emotions, our thoughts, our fears, our puppy love and our neuroses all driven by the engine of our hormones. It was hard for us to imagine a world outside of this little bubble; but as adolescence gave way to adulthood our world developed graps, cracks, exits and surprise, suprise these led to a larger, much more fascinating and frustrating world that we shared with others. This time of life is universal and a multitude of films have attempted to capture the crossroads of childhood and young adulthood, all with varying degrees of success. One recent film from Japan, "Good Morning to the World!!" has managed the very difficult task of capturing this phase of life. It did such a good job that its writer/ director, Satoru Hiroharu, was awarded the prestigious Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival.
"Good Morning to the World!!" centers around Yuta (Yoichiro Koizumi), an introverted 16-year-old. Not the most popular kid in school Yuta spends most of his time with his small circle of friends wandering the streets, setting off fireworks and discussing how far into the future it will be before death will be trumped by cybernetic technology. When he's not out with his friends he's at home, normally alone as his mother seems to spend the majority of her time at the office, whispering his innermost thoughts into a dictaphone, his recorded monologues acting like Yuta's own personal radio broadcasts to an indifferent world. Not the most exciting existence to be sure, but this all changes when a boy in Yuta's class commits suicide. Suddenly life seems that much more fragile (especially when those impervious cybernetic bodies are nowhere to be found). Shortly thereafter Yuta begins to pass a homelss man on his daily walk to school and questions begin to repeat in his mind - Who is this man? How did he end up on the street? Yuta steals the man's bag and checks its contents for clues but only finds a snapshot of this nameless vagrant beside a smiling woman and an address scribbled on a piece of paper. Before Yuta can return the bag the homeless man is killed, possibly beaten to death by students from Yuta's school. Still guilty about stealing the bag and curious about the identity of this man Yuta sets off to find the woman in the snapshot and visit the address on the slip of paper. Yuta soon discovers that life rarely delivers easy explanations; in fact the truth about the homeless man's identity leaves Yuta with more questions than ever.
"Good Morning to the World!" is by no means a perfect film. Like so many current indie and student films coming out of Japan its momentum is sometimes weighed down by length, sometimes aimless scenes and at times the motivations of Yuta remain murky. Still for every several minute long scene where it seems like Hiroharu and his cinematographer Hirotatsu Koarai set up their HD camera and just let it roll there are moments of ingenious pacing and editing. This mainly occurs in the transitions between Yuta's inner world, exemplified by his dictaphone ramblings, and his journey to discover the identity of the dead homeless man; but it's the final shot of the film, which Koarai and Hiroharu filmed from a hot air balloon, that is a simple, effective visual metaphor for for the expansion of Yuta micro-world into the macro-world of adulthood discovery and disappointment.
Hiroharu didn't just pick up the Dragons & Tigers Award for his clever use of a digital video camera though. It accomplished this by doing what so very few screenwriters and filmmakers have done. So many coming-of-age films either view adolesence far too objectively so that the end result feels condescending and lecturing, or suffer from being far too subjective so that the finished film becomes maddeningly self-indulgent and mopey. Hiroharu walks the very fine line between these two poles and manages to give us an honest, empathetic depiction of the courage and confusion of a teenage boy. Hiroharu's age may play a huge factor in the film's success. He's only 23-years-old and is therefore still close enough to his protagonists world view to treat it with both respect and insight. Hiroharu was also very lucky to have found a young actor like Yoichiro Koizumi to portray Yuta. Koizumi isn't afraid to to appear downright goofy onscreen, whether it be jumping on his bed and playing air guitar (which every teenage boy has done - admit it), or pulling his school shirt over his head as a silly impersonation for his friends. At the same time we can feel that this is a thoughtful boy, one who both loves his mother but resents her for her hours spent away at work, and a boy that has the sensitivity to know that the deaths around him are not endings but beginnings, clues leading towards a new stage in his life.
"Good Morning to the World!!" will hopefully not suffer the same fate as so many other indie Japanese films - a series of festival screening, awards won and a few glowing reviews (like this one) only to be followed by obscurity. One can only hope that an adventurous DVD distributor in the West will pick it up so that Yuta's story of discovery can be shared with youth here. One can also hope that the 410,000 prize money that came with the Dragons & Tigers Award will ensure that Satoru Hiroharu's cinematic contributions continue for years to come.