At first glance, this movie could appear like just another Japanese adolescent drama with a love triangle (or even some more complicated geometric figure) set in a high school with the usual tropes (rumors, humiliation and the like). What is rare is a film that deals with these issues and yet escapes the trappings of being clichéd and superficial.
Like Grains of Sand totally succeeds in that regard. Sure, it’s moving and heartfelt but more importantly, it’s respectful and nuanced and doesn’t offer any easy answers to the questions it raises about sexuality, friendship and relationships in general. But the reason I really really loved this film is not even just that. That is because despite belonging to a genre that I already really love and therefore tend to watch a disproportionate number of films in, it managed to constantly surprise me. There were several occasions during the film where I found myself expecting things to go a certain way and then they wouldn’t and yet, whatever actually happened would feel completely true and consistent with the characterizations and let the plot go to some unexpected places that really raise it above most films in this genre.
The movie essentially explores the relationship between a group of Japanese high school students over the course of a few months (or so). One other thing that I found enjoying about the movie is that it never seems to rely on “a-ha” moments to sustain our interest. I have nothing against plot twists and surprise endings but it’s a pleasant change to see a movie that could withhold information so as to maintain more dramatic tension choose to instead keep the viewer on the same page as the characters in the film and allow us to discover things along with them. I don’t think I’m articulating this too well unfortunately but for instance, the key relationships in the film are apparent very early on in the film. Likewise, there are characters with secrets in their past and these secrets are revealed ever so matter-of-factly. This really makes the film seem so much more real and consequently, so much more affecting.
The movie primarily deals with four central characters and like in the case of Wild Reeds, they always feel like real flesh-and-blood characters. The casual banter between the boys always feels completely real and evocative, like for instance:
That totally made me smile because me and my best friend would hope for our school to blow up all the time! I also loved the way the three boys are quite different from one another and yet seem to be good enough friends to be able to just hang out and just *be* with each other. The movie also does a really nice job of showing us the lives of these boys outside of school, with their families at home and just enough of it to help us understand who these people are but without letting these complicate the plot too much.
There are some early scenes in the film where we just see Ito being silently in love, possibly for the first time ever, and the movie depicts his pain and longing so perfectly.
Even if none of these things worked (which they totally do), the movie would be worthy of recommending just for this one scene that comes at about the one-hour mark. This is probably the most touching moment in the entire film. It’s a difficult and awkward scene that packs a ton of complex emotion and everything about the scene from the way it’s set up to the performances and the reaction it evokes is perfect. It could’ve felt exploitative or daring and somehow it doesn’t. It just feels poignant and it sorta reminded me of the awkwardness of high-school relationships and how first kisses are often accompanied by sweaty palms and raw nerves. It’s a long drawn-out scene that feels even longer than it probably really is and is really quite brilliant. Just prior to this is another scene that depicts just how cruel high-school kids can be to anyone who stands out for any reason. Heartbreaking.
Likewise, the film really takes it’s time developing the friendship between Aihara and Ito. I wasn’t too sure I understood Aihara’s characterization entirely but the scenes where she and Ito are just getting to know each other are just so great. Little details like the way Ito accepts Aihara with all her craziness and her inscrutable ways and the way he’s quick to come to her defense when Shimizu makes an unkind remark about her – they’re just full of authenticity.
And finally, the last act. Again, it’s disturbing and unsettling and the last couple of scenes especially are really quite perfect.
So yeah, this movie is really great. There were still a few small things that bothered me. For one thing, some of the acting on the part of some minor characters is pretty terrible (especially the girls that keep collecting money under false pretexts). Talking about which, that whole side-plot didn’t really seem necessary. The entire sequence about the kid being taken to the doctor to be cured of homosexuality seemed a tad heavy-handed but it’s also possible that this was the prevailing norm in Japan at that point in time. Finally, while I found the last act pretty effective emotionally, some of it was really confusing to me and at some level, I felt like even the screenwriter(s) weren’t sure of exactly what they were trying to convey here.
But most of this criticism wouldn’t even have come up if the movie didn’t remind me of Wild Reeds – a movie that I found to be nearly perfect. This is a truly wonderful film and one that I think has a shot to be competing right till the very end of this bracket.