Directed by Naoki Hashimoto
The maiming and ball bludgeoning typical of most films in the revenge genre have been gutted from Hashimoto’s first feature, Birthright, replaced by two women pacing, crying, and occasionally scuffling in a dark room and the slow, endless drip of time. Birthright redirects guilt and revenge from the realm of the physical to the emotional so the height of violence is watching two girls shove each other until they flop over from exhaustion. While those looking for torture porn titillation or a satisfying penis chop may find Birthright disappointing, the emotional masochist in me who loves seeing Japanese schoolgirls cry was piqued by this subtly told tale of guilt and revenge.
Birthright opens with a young woman’s blank face as she stares into the distance, raindrops sliding down her car’s windshield. We watch her stalk a family through the grey suburbs – from the distance she can see everything they do through a wall in their house made entirely of glass, paying particular attention to mom Naoki, whom she follows to work. Her face is impassive, suggesting an emptiness or lack of identity, as if the only meaning in her life is mirroring the movements and daily habits of this family.
The woman finally lures teen daughter Ayana into a car by posing as a fellow classmate. She kidnaps Ayana and locks her up with herself in a deserted warehouse, where she taunts Ayana with her silence. Mom Naoki seems to be harboring a guilty secret, her routine chores and rituals becoming desperate acts of distraction.
“I will destroy you. Until you’re destroyed I’ll be here with you.”
The kidnapper rarely speaks, except to repeat this mantra to Ayana. Maybe she’s also repeating it to herself, and Ayana is a mirror image, another self she can only be reborn as through the act of destruction. With this character, seemingly already dead inside, Birthright seems to portray its protagonist’s revenge as a twisted final bid for intimacy, as she demolishes the friendly exterior of the domestic suburban family, revealing twisted secrets squirming in the dust of the past. Like an ex slashing your tires or leaving love letters written with sheep’s entrails outside your door, in the final act we see her revenge as a flailing in the absence of love, attempting to reconnect a severed umbilical which has left her broken. And the only way to connect with people who have destroyed you is to render them as abject as your self! The protagonist’s weapon of choice is the only thing she knows: indifference, silence, deprivation. Interestingly, the director inflicts this suffering on the audience as well, forcing us to endure boredom and deprivation along with the film’s victim and tormentor.
Birthright uses mostly ambient sound, a series of rustles, wind, breath, and whimpers which flush life into the still shots and drawn out sequences that freeze on faces or landscapes, or during one interlude, a completely black screen. This is a brilliant choice, psychologically forcing the viewer to remain alert, as sound replaces movement in a film that’s agonizingly static. The sounds emerge from the silence of the world, a shift in breathing or wind marking the passage of time as the viewer’s mind hinges to any small detail. The weakest segment for me is when music is introduced later in the film during a sequence that struck me as unnecessarily long. Classical music plays as we watch flashbacks of the main character’s life, seemingly attempting to evoke pathos for her empty existence. But we’ve already seen her standing around looking sad for most of the film, and the soundtrack struck me as an unnecessary injection of sentiment in a movie that mostly documents sounds naturally arising from the environment with a cold ear. I wish director Hashimoto had pulled back on that sequence and saved the pathos for the climax.
Hashimoto, who also worked as a producer on All About Lily Chou-Chou with Shunji Iwai, delivers an unexpected climax that is perfectly demented and shatters the film’s previous tortured restraint. The delight of Birthright is it eschews so many conventions that you have no idea what to expect while waiting for something to happen, and there’s a kind of masochistic pleasure to be had in enduring each moment in the present, without expectations. After all, a director willing to bore his audience to tears is capable of anything!
4 1/2 out of 5