Coming-of-age films are often seen as a speciality of Japanese cinema by international audiences. Viewers of all ages the world over find comfort and relate to Studio Ghibli’s magical parables on growing up. Meanwhile, auteurs such as Akihiko Shiota present a more bleak outlook on female adolescence. Director Yusuke Morii’s debut feature, Amiko, sits between these two extremes. Calling to mind the humanism of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s works, Morii crafts an empathic portrait of a misunderstood child which more than stands on its own amongst the wider pantheon of Japanese youth cinema.
Ten-year-old Amiko (newcomer Kana Osawa) lives life with a curiosity and spirit her family doesn’t understand. Amiko’s blunt honesty often frustrates her mother (Machiko Ono), while her father (Arata Iura) and older brother try their best to play along and correct her more serious social faux pas.1It should be noted that while one can wonder whether or not Amiko is on the Autism spectrum, writer-director Morii felt any formal labels were irrelevant to the story he wanted to tell. Following a family tragedy, Amiko spends her childhood years navigating increasingly tense relationships and a society that constantly pushes her away.
Adapted from Natusko Imamura’s novella This is Amiko, Do You Copy?, Morii says he was conscious of how to capture “the world that Amiko sees in the original work, and the world she cannot see”. The end result of this negotiation between Amiko’s perspective and the reality around her is an impressive balancing act of tone and visual storytelling. At first, Amiko’s carefree attitude is captured through stylish symmetrical shots and a pastel colour palette, imbuing her day-to-day life with a sense of whimsy (helped along by a twee score by Ichiko Aoba).
Yet despite the film never leaving Amiko (and even indulging in some fantastical moments spurred by her imagination) Morii doesn’t shy away from the reality around her. As her family begins to break apart following their loss and Amiko becomes further outcast at school, Morii subtly adjusts his framing in response. Frames are soon dominated by only one colour, while the meticulous staging and little movement in scenes where Amiko is bullied or ignored show a world of conformity that the ever-curious and free-spirited girl does not neatly fit into.
Amiko is not unaware or unresponsive to the world around her, though. Amiko’s growth — and consistency — is largely unspoken, told through the minutiae of Osawa’s performance. As fifth-grader Amiko, Osawa possesses a boundless energy and physicality which is instantly endearing and brings to mind the imagination of childhood. But as Amiko enters high school, Osawa begins to surface the worries hiding beneath Amiko’s sunny exterior, while making sure to not betray the character’s pure disposition. Amiko’s posture is now more slouched and her gaze more mysterious and withdrawn. She knows that people think she is “creepy”. Yet Amiko is still proudly Amiko, loudly singing in class and roaming the hallways with bare feet.
Amiko’s self-assuredness and companionship with a boisterous classmate are a much needed reprieve from the depressing events surrounding her. As others’ become more cruel to Amiko, Morii is careful not to brush over nor exploit Amiko’s situation, or indulge in harmful tropes around socially-eccentric or neurodivergent people. Morii’s confidence in both Amiko’s message and as a filmmaker shrines through in its brilliant ending. Overtly symbolic yet emotionally grounded, it’s a showcase of the film’s finely-tuned balance of hopefulness and realism, and a flagrant refusal to wallow in tragedy or dilute Amiko’s agency.
With such deft control over sensitive subjects and contrasting tone, Morii has proven with just his debut film his immense talent. Most promising, however, is the genuine empathy which runs through Amiko, and hopefully becomes a throughline in their career.
1. It should be noted that while one can wonder whether or not Amiko is on the Autism spectrum, writer-director Morii felt any formal labels were irrelevant to the story he wanted to tell.