Ai Hashimoto stars in this dark teen drama as a high-school girl whose obsession with a mobile fashion game has deadly consequences for those around her. Michiko (Hashimoto) is unpopular at school, her introverted demeanour making her a target for the most popular girl in class Taeko (Rikako Sakata) and her clique of fashion-obsessed teens. In the opening scene we see that Michiko’s father died in part due to Taeko and her father’s actions, giving her animosity to her a more sinister edge. Taeko’s most violent bullying is directed at Saionji (Nako Mizusawa), another unpopular classmate due to her drab appearance. Michiko sees a potential route to toppling Taeko, in the popularity stakes at least, through a mobile game where players dress up avatars in increasingly rare outfits. After winning an unexpected lottery in the game Michiko finds herself the object of the same adoration as Taeko once enjoyed, supplanting her rival. However, power soon goes to her head and Michiko, along with her lieutenant Saionji, begins to lead the entire class in dealing out brutal revenge against a number of former bullies.
Based on a novel by Yusuke Yamada, “Avatar” centres on the concerns of and surrounding teen girls: bullying, the fixation on appearance and status, and the danger of addiction to technology. The film also includes darker elements such as underage prostitution and the sexual predation of teachers towards their students. Unfortunately, the film rarely scratches below the surface of these elements. In perhaps the most egregious example we witness the death of Michiko’s father at the beginning of the film, setting up what would ordinarily be the central conflict. Howver, this plot point is largely ignored until the second half, while the mobile game and popularity contest of the girls becomes the focus. Likewise, when Michiko begins prostituting herself to earn money; or when her and her classmates actions turn violent, a lack of consequences or consideration by the characters means events don’t carry the weight that they should. The bullying of Saionji, with her being strangled and drowned in a bucket of water also feels extreme in contrast to the realism of the world surrounding it. There is a disconnect between the blackly comic tone and moments that should be dealt with more seriously. The film cannot decide whether to be an outrageous black-comedy (as in the re-appearance of a chainsaw weilding Taeko), or more satirical (as in the finale which sees the girls simply shrug off the deaths of numerous individuals as they move onto the next mobile game craze). Hashimoto struggles in the role of a menacing anti-hero, and the shallowness of the plot and satire is reflected in an absence of character development.
A low-budget schoolgirl thriller revolving around the dangers of technology with some interesting ideas that go undeveloped. As with “Keitai Kanojo”, the idea of mobile game addiction and the pressure girls’ are under to fit in with classmates and aspire to ideals of beauty and popularity, have potential but are brushed over in favour of something that fails to engage emotionally or intellectually. The matter-of-fact direction and acting, the sudden shift of tone and style, leaves it feeling like a shallow exploration of the themes. It is a shame because the film has a strong cast and the potential to be something more, but in the end it fails to satisfy.