A young girl begins to question her parents belief in an unusual cult in this examination of faith and family. As Chihiro Hayashi suffered with terrible exczma as an infant, her father was recommended a miracle water, apparently imbued with cosmic energy. When they rub this on Chihiro she is cured of her painful skin condition. Now at primary school, Chihiro (Mana Ashida) and her parents are still part of this cult, drinking the ‘blessed’ water provided by the organization daily, while her parents are further involved in odd rituals of dousing themselves in water, and buying various products from the sect. Chihiro’s older sister (Aju Makita) is sceptical, refusing to completely follow their rules, and eventually distancing herself from them. However, despite the teasing of her friend Nabe (Ninon), and the concerns of her uncle Yuzo (Kohei Otomo), Chihiro is reluctant to leave her parents.
Based on the book by Natsuko Imamura, with a screenplay by director Tatsushi Omori, “Under the Stars” is a touching coming-of-age drama about an often overlooked problem: that of children growing up in religious households, unable to reject their parents beliefs. While Chihiro’s parents are not violent or abusive, in fact they are shown as loving and kind towards their daughter, they believe in a nonsensical placebo: something that is ridiculed by many around Chihiro. While their behaviour is bizarre to the audience, it appears perfectly natural to Chihiro, who has grown up surrounded by these beliefs. Mana Ashida gives a great performance as the young Chihiro, dealing with regular schoolgirl issues such as a crush on her teacher Minami (Masaki Okada) as well as the conflict between her parents, friends and extended family. She is well-adjusted in spite of her parents asking her to do strange things, such as wearing a pair of glasses to alter the way she sees the world; or drinking the expensive bottles of water in order to prevent illness. Masatoshi Nagase and Tomoyo Harada are also excellent as her loving yet misguided parents, playing straight-faced their adherence to the cult’s practices. They are sympathetic figures, especially as their entry to the cult was prompted by their daughter’s illness and seems well-intentioned in attempting to prevent harm to her and others. Chihiro is caught between two worlds, exemplified by her school friend Nabe, and Sanae (Ai Mikami), another child brought up in the cult. The film avoids sentimentality, with most of the responses to Chihiro’s family being confusion or mild amusement. Chihiro’s uncle Yuzo’s attempts to break them out of this mindset is one of the more emotionally raw moments, showing his distress at what has happened to his sister’s family.
“Under the Stars” ends on an ambiguous note, showing the ludicrous fiction that Chihiro’s parents are living, yet at the same time making clear their love for their daughter. This echoes the film’s central theme that good people can be easily manipulated by these groups. Minami teaches mathematics and science, suggesting that Chihiro is stuck between worlds of fact and fantasy, reality and religion. Having being misinformed her entire life, and slowly seeing the truth, she nevertheless clings to her parents and wants to please them. The film sheds light on the practice of cults making money off credulous and well-meaning individuals, while depicting the positive and negative aspects of piety, in Chihiro’s bond with her parents and their adherence to the organization. A powerful film about the tragedy of growing up in a cult, and the strength of human relationships and religious convictions.