Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This month: The A.V. Club atones for its sins of omission, recommending the best movies of the year that we didn’t review.

Himizu (2011)

Some directors can only do one thing, but they do that thing incredibly well. Others, far more rare, can do everything well. Then there are those who dabble in many genres, and experience many degrees of success. Take Sion Sono, for example. Like Takashi Miike, he’s quite prolific, and in the past few years has made everything from a soapy melodrama to a straightforward samurai flick. However, the Sono films that get distribution in the West come in two basic modes: gleefully anarchic (Love Exposure) and brutally misanthropic (Cold Fish).

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Both modes are extremely violent and usually applied to very lengthy running times. But one celebrates cinema as an escape from real life—Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is one of these—while the other makes the case for that escapism. True, Sono does so by pummeling the viewer with reminders of the evil of our times in the kind of films that art-house programmers like to refer to as “challenging.” But sometimes that sort of thing is necessary, in the way that enduring the winter makes the first day of spring feel even warmer.

Such is the case with Sono’s manga adaptation Himizu, which was made in 2011, but received a limited U.S. theatrical release earlier this year. The screenplay was completed just before the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, and was quickly retrofitted to concern the disaster. (Film Comment credits it as the first major film to address what the Japanese refer to as “3/11.”) And the film is actually better for it, with lingering shots of ruined neighborhoods and the eerie sound of Geiger counters imbuing a tale of adolescent nihilism with a larger significance.

Much of Himizu’s power comes from the potent performances of teenage leads Shota Sometani, who stars as 14-year-old Tyler Durden-type Sumida, and Fumi Nikaido, who plays his hysterical, crazy-eyed classmate/sort-of girlfriend Keiko. (Sometani and Nikaido were awarded for their work at the Venice International Film Festival in 2011.) Both Sumida and Keiko have terrible home lives—Sumida’s parents are abusive drunks who, when not ignoring him, are beating him up for his pocket change, and Keiko’s are building a gallows for their daughter to hang herself on. (That’s not a metaphor.) In fact, the only adults in the movie who aren’t shitty, selfish people are the lovable gang of homeless disaster victims camped out in Sumida’s yard.

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But it’s not entirely the grownups’ fault; they’re just stand-ins for a society irrevocably heading toward collapse. Surrounded by literal rubble, ordinary interactions randomly erupt into violence, and those that don’t are pregnant with the threat of violence. Add the very real possibility of nuclear meltdown, and it makes a fatalistic sort of sense that Sumida and Keiko slap and kick each other instead of snuggling and holding hands. Sumida eventually kills his father and begins roaming the streets carrying a knife in a paper shopping bag, but, believe it or not, Himizu ends on an optimistic note. Running through the countryside past scenes of devastation, screaming, “Don’t give up!” Sumida and Keiko remind us that hope is more precious when it’s chosen.

Availability: Himizu is available on DVD and Blu-ray, both of which can be purchased through Amazon.

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