If you were to attempt to affix a central tenet to Isao Yukisada’s lyrical exploration of wayward youth, you would inevitably concede to something utilitarian but facile like “growing up can be cruel sometimes.” The assembled teenage tragedies that populate River’s Edge aren’t suffering in their nihilistic angst to provide a lesson, however, so much as they are there to exist and envelop you into their dead-end state of mind, living as they do in presumably hazardous proximity to an industrial district that is polluting the rivers that run behind the school from which they frequently skip.
Set in 1994 in the dead economic space after the price bubble collapsed, the film (based on a manga by Kyoko Okazaki) bears witness to its emotionally stunted cast of characters meandering through the easily avoided tragedies that naturally come with delinquent youth, and never does it cross the line into moralizing or even taking a strong position. In a way it fulfills the lamentable state of Japanese realism brought up by Donald Richie by presenting social issues “without the slightest hint of how they may be solved,” but it’s this resistance to a satisfactory “answer” for all it displays that transforms Yukisada’s adaptation into a galvanizing, hard-hearted tragicomedy.
Primarily River’s Edge concerns the circumstantial friendship of Haruna and Ichiro; the latter is a closeted and empathetic waif whose constant targeted bullying has rendered him utterly apathetic, and the former is a prosaic girl with a penchant for bad decisions whose boyfriend, Kannonzaki, routinely victimizes her. Moved by her compassion toward him, Ichiro shares his “greatest treasure” with her, which incidentally reveals itself to be a decayed body hidden among the reeds by the river bank.
Sharing this secret creates something inexplicably intimate and special between them, and they are later joined by fellow classmate and professional model, Kozue, whose bleak cynicism and body dysmorphia permits her to share in their macabre dilemma.
While the plot itself is rather fleeting and sparse beyond these characters and the film functions more like a snapshot of a couple of weeks within their angst-ridden, fatalist lives, the shocking depth and wholeness to which Yukisada presents his subjects absolves any type of grievance you could have with the loose narrative. As we jump from these depressive episodes that befall our “heroes,” we are treated to an absorbing interiority to all of the players that makes witnessing their tragedies more gratifying than uncomfortable.
There are standout “moments” and “arcs,” but rather than serve an encompassing linear narrative, they more suitably inform and strengthen the characters as it did in the manga, of which the film is more or less a one-to-one adaptation. Kannonzaki’s petulant treatment of Ichiro and neglect of Haruna allows for a relationship to grow between them, and he in turn crafts a strictly sexual fling with Haruna’s best friend, Rumi, which, given the nature of this film, goes from freewheeling fun to misfortune with the snap of a your fingers.
The new equal-minded intimacy enjoyed by Ichiro and Haruna enrages Kanna, Ichiro’s girlfriend whom he keeps around to dissuade rumors of his sexuality and whose anger subsides to murderous obsession soon enough. There is a rich tapestry of relationships at work in River’s Edge’s script, which feels naturally engrossing despite not actually working toward a plot-dictated end point. Many of these substories end in tragedy or just plain go unresolved as you would expect, but experiencing it all through these well-rounded characters refutes the need for proper closure.
Using the distinctly Japanese dramatic device of documentary style interviews, with the characters serving as narrative interludes, Yukisada rightfully lays his characters bare to his audience to narrowly avoid River’s Edge becoming an over-sentimental melodrama. Touched with eerily natural acting from the already stellar cast, it’s these contextual character moments that give significance to the bleak headspace the plot asks them to continually occupy.
While surface appearances portray Ichiro, Haruna and Kozue as walking bundles of teenage issues, Yukisada and writer Misaki Setoyama imbue them with deeply satisfying characterizations that come through effortlessly, despite the abrasiveness of the tone. It seems like a dramatic cheat to substantiate your characters with nebulous interview segments rather than integrate them more organically, but the effect actually contributes to the dire realism of the melodrama.
We can witness Kozue’s bulimia in a series of stark, dialogue-free scenes and Ichiro’s bullying at the hands of his homophobic classmates in a matter-of-fact presentation and still have them resonate with us because we feel like we know these characters. What also prevents River’s Edge from losing sight of its ability to connect is the strict attention Yukisada pays to the tone of his piece. Unflinchingly digital in its presentation, he films these high schoolers in moody, desaturated colors, which perfectly match their angsty worldview as if they were projecting their internal thoughts into the sets.
It’s a bleak-looking film that still finds ways of feeling familiar and comforting due to the characters and the often-sardonic dialogue that makes scenes a whirlwind of clashing emotions. Scenes of misfortune can unceremoniously slip into comedy and just as quickly revert back to disaster because Yukisada intentionally rides those complicated emotions of youth to great effect. The result is frankly a moving, coming-of-age film that reveals its complexities the more you are willing to go with it and just get into its gratifying malaise.
I was struck by how much I got into the melancholy of River’s Edge when I normally have a resistance to the charms of a Solondz-style sardonic ennui. What I guess was the differing factor this time around was my ability to connect with and feel for these obstinate teenagers even when they are at their most selfish, cruel or inscrutable.
Several of the aforementioned arcs just straight-up lead to cold-blooded murder, and even then, I did not sense a barrier between myself and the perpetrator’s guarded disposition, which was refreshing. It was nice to be moved by kids feeling sorry for themselves for what is ostensibly their own doing instead of my normal response of apathy and irritation. That just goes to show what good characterization can bring to the table.