Innocence is a fairly nebulous concept and one often misused but if you were expecting an “innocent” tale of youthful romance, Hirokazu Kai’s Innocent15 (イノセント15) is out to wrong foot you from the get go. Kai does not shy away from the darker sides of human nature in examining abusive parenting and forced prostitution as well as the damage done when a secret is broken after long years of being unable to be honest about who you really are. This is a bleak tale, but one with with hope shining round the edges, even if uncertainly.
Narumi (Sara Ogawa) and Gin (Riku Hagiwara) are ordinary middle school students living in small town not far from the capital. When Narumi plucks up the courage to confess her love to her friend, she receives the kindest of brush offs but Gin is left confused. His two drop out friends who spend their days skateboarding around the neighbourhood can’t understand his decision to turn down such a pretty girl though they remember that he’s done the same thing before. Gin himself doesn’t quite know why, but even if he feels sorry for not returning Narumi’s feelings, he is unable to accept them.
Though Narumi may seem like the perfect high school girl – quiet, studious, and refined, if a little sad, her home life is anything but ordinary. Saddled with an aggressive woman child for a mother who demands Narumi abandon her homework to cook her dinner while she plays on her gameboy, Narumi keeps her head down and makes the best of things. After putting up with her mother’s regular beatings, she finally decides to leave when she learns that her mother has sold her virginity to her boyfriend for 100,000 yen.
Meanwhile, Gin’s life is turned upside-down when he learns his father is in love with another man. Already in a state of confusion about his own adolescent feelings, Gin is unable to comprehend this sudden bombshell and lashes out at all around him. Therefore when Narumi arrives and tells him she’s leaving for Tokyo to look for her father he immediately says he’ll come with her. However, their youthful ideas of going it alone in the big city are quickly dashed.
Gin’s problems are of a more immediate kind but Narumi has endured long term suffering at the hands of her abusive mother. When she belittles Narumi’s studying and remarks that she’s no need to go to high school because the world always needs more hookers, it seems like an instance of cruel sarcasm but it turns out she really is intent on prostituting her own daughter to her no good boyfriend.
When her mother’s boyfriend viciously attacks Gin, Narumi is left with nowhere else to go. The tragedy is that intense social pressures and her already existing isolation make it impossible for Narumi to confide in someone about the abuse she’s suffering at home. Being only 15, even if she were to simply walk out of her mother’s house she would have no way to support herself, leaving her with little choice between possible starvation on the streets and allowing her mother to sell her to her cruel and violent boyfriend.
Narumi’s “innocent” love for Gin becomes her last lifeline and his rejection a crushing end to her dreams of being saved. By contrast, Gin’s problems are much easier to solve. His resentment towards his father is more likely driven by the shock of the revelation rather than directly because he has fallen in love with another man. Gin may have temporarily rejected his father, but his father has not rejected him. Guilt and embarrassment over his actions aside, Gin is always welcome to return home where his father would welcome him with open arms. All of Gin’s problems are internal as he struggles with his adolescent confusion. All of Narumi’s problems are external – when Gin spots the scars and bruises on her shoulder, she tells him that she was able to put up with her mother’s cruelty because it only hurt her body and never touched her soul. Narumi’s interior is solid, but she’s trapped in a desperate situation from which there is no obvious way to escape.
Mirroring each other, Gin and Narumi try to run away from their problems but are each unable to escape. Kai opts for a series of reverses towards the film’s conclusion which offer hope only to dash it again and the final scene with only the sound of a motorbike’s flooded engine and eventual kickstart adds a note of anxious ambivalence in which there is a chance for the pair to ride away together but no further evidence that this attempt will be any more successful than the last. The general tone is one of gritty realism though Kai also admits the existence of life’s strange coincidence’s such as in the repeated appearance of a “weird lady” on a pink mobility scooter whose eccentric driving style has disastrous consequences. A necessarily bleak tale highlighting the plight of children in danger in their own homes and left with nowhere else to go coupled with a tentative, innocent teenage love story, Innocent15 is a tense, often horrifying experience filled with outrage but is careful to leave at least the possibility of a better way out, however far off it may be.
Reviewed at Raindance 2016.
Original trailer (English subtitles)