Kanae Minato is known for her hard-hitting crime stories from Confessions to Chorus of Angels, The Snow White Murder Case, and Penance but in adapting her second novel, Shojo (少女), Yukiko Mishima has moved away from the mystery for a no less penetrating look at the death of childhood in the story of two best friends each dealing with traumatic pasts and presents. Childhood is a place of tightly controlled powerlessness, but adulthood offers little more than corruption and selfishness with its predatory teachers, abusive parents, and dirty old men so obsessed with school uniforms they barely see the girl inside them. Adolescent anxiety provokes a fascination with the idea of death which perhaps reflects this transitionary stage, but at its centre is the fracturing of a friendship which has endured all else.
The film opens with a strange avant-garde play being performed in a church by a group of girls in austere school uniforms. The monologue offered by the collective reads like an instruction booklet for the birth of fascism with its calls for genetically engineered test tube babies and universal childcare in which each child is “equal” and receives “exactly the same” education and resources. The girls are students at a strict Christian fundamentalist school where they’re also expected to participate in strange rituals including dancing round the maypole (incongruous as that may seem).
Atsuko (Mizuki Yamamoto) – a former kendo champion with a limp, and Yuki (Tsubasa Honda) who has a large scar across her hand resulting from domestic abuse, have been lifelong friends but have recently begun to drift apart. Given the overriding survival of the fittest atmosphere in the school, it’s not surprising that the other girls have turned on Atsuko and proceeded to make her life a misery by telling her to die either in person, on line, or in one particularly grim episode by shoving a sanitary towel into her locker with the message written on it in blood. Yuki is trying to help her but doesn’t know how and has taken to writing everything down in a book instead.
The world of teenage girls can often be a vicious one but there’s a strange kind of mania in the way Atsuko’s schoolmates set about pushing her towards the edge. Formerly a top kendo player, Atsuko has vivid, panic attack inducing flashbacks to her life changing accident in which she recalls her teammates prentending to comfort her but secretly hurling accusations under their breaths while Yuki looks on in horror from the stands.
Yuki has been writing their story in the form of a novel she calls Night’s Tightrope but the completed manuscript goes missing. The girls’ teacher who has longstanding dreams of literary stardom steals it, sends it to a magazine, and even wins a prestigious literary prize for brand new novelists. Yuki’s revenge is swift but has terrible, unforeseen consequences which add to her obsession with death and dying, eventually culminating in the worrying desire to see someone die in order to fully understand the nature of the “phenomenon”.
While Yuki develops a friendship with a boy she met in a library while she was destroying copies of the teacher’s stolen story, Atsuko goes in a different direction by falling under the spell of troubled transfer student Shiori (Ryo Sato). Recently witnessing a dead body herself, Shiori is just as death obsessed as the other girls but her vision is darker. Shiori introduces Atsuko to her world of blackmail and exploitation, pulling her into a high school girl scam in which they accuse a nearby salaryman of groping them and then blackmail him. Shiori may think she’s taking revenge on venal older men who lust after school uniforms – there are plenty of these on offer from skeevy old men luring school girls to abandoned houses and then trying to get them to do laundry, to teachers visiting love hotels with their students – but actions have consequences and ramifications can be severe.
The girls are caught in a kind of limbo, walking a tightrope into adulthood but doing it blind and alone. Splitting up they take similar paths with Atsuko volunteering at an old people’s home, and Yuki spending time with terminally ill children but soon enough their death obsession changes form as their twin causes eventually overlap. Stepping away from Minato’s sometimes nihilistic pessimism, Night’s Tightrope leaves a space for hope in the reconciliation of the protagonists who rediscover their shared pasts once the message buried in the novel is finally delivered. The adult world may be mired in the dark of night but the girls have recaptured the sunlight, taking solace in the depth of their friendship and stepping off the tightrope and into the world of adulthood hand in hand.
Original trailer (English subtitles)