Harmful Insect (2001) by Akihito Shiota

After her mother attempts suicide, schoolgirl Sachiko Kita (Aoi Miyazaki) begins skipping school, finding companionship with two homeless men in the neighbourhood. Her schoolfriend Natsuko (Yu Aoi) doesn’t give up on her, calling at her house every day before school. As well as her mother’s health, rumours also circulate concerning a relationship Sachiko had with her sixth-gradge teacher Mr. Ogata (Seichi Tanabe), with whom she remains in correspondence.

“Harmful Insect”, written by Yayoi Kiyono and directed by Akihiko Shiota, is a character-driven drama focussing on the peculiar circumstances of Sachiko’s life. The film is light on dialogue in a way that echoes Sachiko’s inability to express herself to those around her, including her mother and Natsuko. Most of her feelings are expressed in the letters to Ogata and his responses to her, but these are also often shrouded in metaphor. This lack of explicit answers leaves us desperate to learn more about the characters and attempting to piece together a cohesive picture from the hints we are given. The direction itself is a major key to solving many of the mysteries of Sachiko’s character, with often jarring cuts, the isolation of characters through framing, giving us an insight into how she perceives the world. Aoi Miyazaki’s Sachiko is a conflicted character, neither a traumatised youth nor a delinquent teen, her circumstances are troubling and yet she still has the fortitude to continue.

The film deals with several difficult themes, including suicide, sexual predators and rape, without moralising, instead providing an intresting character study that gives the audience time to consider what Sachiko is experiencing and how it might impact on her. Sachiko’s drawing books at random from a bookshelf; her letters to Ogata detailing dreams of a starless sky; her rebellious behaviour and her decisions to skip school and return, all provide subtle hints of a complex individual attempting to regain control in a life that has taken much of it from her.