November 22, 2018
Bashing – Japan, 2006
In Masahiro Kobayashi’s 2006 film, Bashing, a landline terrorizes three people. This is not exactly accurate, for it is not the phone itself, but the anonymous strangers on the other end of the line, men who appear to be confused as to why a family would let the answering machine handle a call from someone who is likely to insult and threaten them. And it is not just the phone. In fact, if what we see is any gauge, their entire seaside town is against them. Their supposed crime: one of them, a young woman named Yuko Takai (Fusako Arabe), was taken hostage while volunteering in Iraq.
If this set-up sounds familiar, that’s because the film is based on actual events. Back in the spring of 2004, three Japanese citizens - two of them volunteers, the other a photojournalist - were kidnapped and threatened with immolation if Japan did not withdraw its non-combat troops from Iraq. Then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi stood his ground, and after eight days, the three were released. This would have been all there was to the story had the Japanese government not made headlines by demanding that it be reimbursed for its assistance. Sadly, that was not the end of their national punishment.
None of the things I have just written are spoilers, for Kobayashi wisely elects not to include the usual flashbacks and national perspective that other, more conventional directors would likely have. In fact, the only references to Yuko’s time overseas come at the beginning of fade ins. In one such moment, we hear sporadic gunfire and recognize it as one of the specters that haunt her days and nights.
The film picks up six months after Yuko’s return to Japan. Early in the film, we observe her working as a maid in a hotel, and what’s striking about the scene is how none of her co-workers utter a single word to her. It is as if everyone has come to the collective conclusion that while they have to work with her, they don’t have to be cordial. A bit later, we watch her employer terminate her, reasoning that the atmosphere at the hotel has changed for the worse since her arrival. And this is just the beginning of the barrage. As the film progresses, Yuko comes in contact with convenience store clerks, a band of young male ruffians, and even her estranged boyfriend, none of whom have a kind or sympathetic word to say to her.
I suppose the intention here is to show just how much Yuko must endure, and if this is indeed the case, well, mission accomplished. The problem is that the film doesn’t even attempt to give these characters anything resembling a back story or motivation. It’s just attack, attack, attack, and this grows tiring. The scene in which Yuko goes to meet her boyfriend (after apparently electing not to see him for six months) is jarring, but not because he aims for the jugular. Sure, his words are cruel and calculated to cause her maximum pain, yet they come without any character development or rationale behind them. He’s brutal seemingly because he’s required to be. A better film would have enabled the viewer to understand the origins of his anger. Was he pressured to end the relationship by family or friends? Are his words the result of months of concern? Is he too getting pressure from his employer? We are never told. (There is a later revelation involving this character, but even that doesn’t explain why he would want to meet with Yuko just to belittle her.)
The film is on surer (and familiar) ground when it turns its lens to Yuko’s father (Ryuzo Tanaka). His is a complicated character, and I empathized with him greatly. He is Yuko’s lone source of support, yet even he wavers at times. He reminded me how easily it is to turn against a victim when showing them support exposed us to ridicule or danger. We also meet Yuko’s stepmother (Nene Otsuka), a young woman who at times is the voice of reason and at others is unable to reign in her own conflicted emotions. Sure, she married into the family, but this wasn’t exactly what she thought she was signing up for. As it would be in real life, the home they share is haunted by silence and tension, and we get the sense that these characters are teetering on the brink of desperation. The film is strongest when it focus on these characters because we can empathize with them. We may admire someone like Yuko, but very few of us truly know what it is like to do what she does. We can, however, relate to a father hearing crude things said about his child.
I suspect that what Bashing, like Fruitvale Station, shows us is a condensed version of events that would normally transpire over months instead of days, and this is understandable. Kobayashi is building to something tragic, and as such, he stacks the deck against Yuko by showing us just how many obstacles she has in front of her. The way he does it is suspect, though. There is little heart in any of Yuko’s encounters with people outside her family, and none of the exchanges alters our impression of her. There is also the matter of the preachiness of Yuko and her few supporters. They ask painful questions in such a blatant way that they are almost rhetorical. We, the audience, know what the answer is, and after a while, it’s clear that none of the characters outside the family are going to give that answer. So, what is the point then of having characters ask them again and again?
I’m being slightly negative here, perhaps more negative than I intended to be, but I have my reasons. A story like Yuko’s is important. It provides us insight into both individuals and society, and as such, it has the potential to affect people in a profound way. I remember watching Junichi Suzuki’s Remembering the Cosmos Flower, also from Japan, and marveling over its potential to change the way people see patients with HIV. That film ends with a teenager delivering a heartfelt speech pleading with classmates to understand and accept her dying friend’s condition, yet it is unnecessary. The film has already convinced us. Bashing takes too much time trying to prove to us just how much Yuko has stacked against her. Eventually it’s just overwhelming. I suspect that this was Kobayashi ‘s intent, but he misses the chance to do something more meaningful. After all, rarely does a public shaming have its desired effect. (on DVD)
*Bashing is in Japanese with English subtitles.