“How have things turned out this way?” Asks the heroine of Eisuke Naito’s Liverleaf (ミスミソウ, Misumisou) after receiving a poignant (non)explanation for the cause of all her sufferings. Adolescence is cruel at the best of times, but when you’re stuck in a tiny no horse town with nothing to do, violence can become an easy pastime. The kids of Liverleaf take the art of bullying to all new heights, stopping not at humiliation, ostracisation, or conspiratorial acts of emotional ruin but allowing their petty games to run all the way to arson and murder.
Haruka (Anna Yamada), unlike most of her classmates, is a relatively new resident of a small rural town where she and her family have moved for her father’s job. Her only friend at school, and the only one to stand up for her against the gang of popular kids making her life a misery, is another transfer student, Aiba (Hiroya Shimizu), living alone with his grandmother for mysterious reasons. The usual high school girl tricks of making another girl feel unwelcome – stolen shoes, name calling, silent stalking etc eventually progress into direct violence at which point her father (Masahiro Toda) tries to go to the school to complain. Unfortunately, Haruka’s teacher (Aki Morita) is an almost absent, hollow source of authority who cannot control the kids and nor does she try. She tells Haruka’s dad that as the school will be closing down at the end of the academic year it’s hardly the time to make waves and she sees no need to get involved in such trivial matters. Matters come to a head when the kids, egging each other on, set fire to Haruka’s house with her mother (Reiko Kataoka), father, and little sister Shoko (Sena Tamayori) trapped inside.
It’s true enough to say Haruka reacted to her bullying in the way that society expects – she kept her head down and tried to put up with it without making a fuss. Some may read Liverleaf as a tale of vengeance, but it isn’t. As passive as she’s always been, Haruka’s acts of violence are a matter of extreme self defence. She doesn’t go looking for the ones who’ve done her wrong, but they come looking for her and thereafter pay a heavy price for their continued campaign of subjugation.
Haruka became an easy subject for bullying because she was a literal outsider – Aiba escaped this particular fate through being male, conventionally attractive, and with a confidence and maturity which set him apart from the bratty kids trying to prove their status by belittling others. Once Haruka decides to sit out the rest of the school term rather than put up with constant torment, she activates an extreme chain of events when the next likely target, a strange girl with a stammer (Rena Ohtsuka), decides to do whatever it takes to become one of the bullies rather than their latest victim. Morality goes out the window when fear takes over and some will to whatever it takes to make sure it’s someone else in the firing line rather than themselves.
Yet for all the fear and violence, there’s another, perhaps more interesting, story buried under all the senseless bloodletting. It’s not so much that teenage emotions are running wild, but that they barely have them at all and those they do have find no available outlet. Romantic jealousy spirals out of control, turning in on itself as love denied masquerades as hate. Unable to freely voice their innermost anxieties, the kids take their resentments out on each other, getting their kicks through cruel games which bind them with complicity in the absence of real feeling.
Naito attempts to lend an air of realism to the increasingly bizarre middle school warfare but cannot escape the manga origins of his source material. The violence itself is cartoonish and absurd, but there’s also an unpleasant layer of fetishisation which takes over as the blood starts flowing, almost revelling in acts of extreme cruelty as a young man exults in beating the face of a young girl to a bloody pulp. Unremittingly bleak, Liverleaf makes a bid for pathos in its closing coda as it takes us back to a case of ruined friendships and broken dreams but it can’t overcome the uneasy stylisation of all that’s gone before in swapping emptiness for wistful melancholy.
Liverleaf screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 8th July, 7pm with director Eisuke Naito in attendance for a Q&A.
Original trailer (English subtitles/captions)