Shot through with deadpan humor and framed in a complex but always coherent structure, The Kirishima Thing is an engaging new work from director Daihachi Yoshida that is both modest in its aims and ambitious in its construction.
Kirishima is the top athlete at his high school, and when he suddenly disappears, the social order of the entire insititution crumbles behind him. With foul play never suspected and the titular character never appearing on screen, the Kirishima 'thing' is merely a MacGuffin to set the stage for a wider exploration of hierarchical norms in Japanese society, particularly as they apply to the pressure cooker environment of high school.
The jocks and their girlfriends, Kirishima's friends, hold power in the school while, tellingly, the geeks are represented as members of a film club in Daihachi's new film. Between these higher and lower strata, outliers such as the school's band leader with a crush on someone from the popular crowd, and a small kid unexpectedly promoted to the starting lineup of the volleyball team in Kirishima's absence, find themselves in new and uncomfortable situations. But with the school's top dog gone, the changes don't just rise up to fill out the gap. People at the top of the pecking order are also threatening to move down as insecurities come creeping to the surface or hidden interests in hobbies normally reserved for the lower-class geeks manifest themselves.
While a palpable tension descends on the students in the school, the movements in social status are hardly dramatic. The lack of sensationalism allows us to focus on the mechanics of the system rather than plot points but in a relatively short film it doesn't allow the texture of what's on screen to build into a full picture.
One of the film's most notable points is its unusual structure, which acts as both a strength and a hindrance. Kirishima doesn't turn up to school on Friday and the events of the day are played out three times from different perspectives. Subsequent days are shown straight through before the chronological trick is repeated later in the next week. The overlapping scenes, when seen from different angles and with more context and plot details, are just on the right side of charming. Far from feeling like a gimmick, they open the doors for small insights and lots of humor. However, in order to lead to something more interesting the segments overlap slightly. While we see things from a new angle, we are still watching the same thing.
Given its mystery set-up and the film's marked social agenda, it's surprising just how funny The Kirishima Thing is. The humor is very dry and not evident in every scene, but when it does turn up it leaves a mark and elevates the narrative in its sagging moments, an unavoidable problem resulting from the film's repetitive structure.
Aside from exploring the interconnecting relationships of the students in the school, there isn't a great deal of plot in The Kirishima Thing, yet a standout scene on a rooftop featuring many key characters, is brilliantly executed and thoroughly cathartic. While it also serves as a sort of climax, as with the rest of the film, it does little to advance the narrative.
There's nothing new here but the presentation of the strict social matrix of the Japanese education system still feels fresh. Well-shot (but mostly at an observational distance), precisely structured and showcases a wide-eyed and nervy cast, The Kirishima Thing is an atmospheric work and a solid achievement.