My Friend ‘A’ (Yūzai) (2018)

My Friend ‘A’ (Yūzai) first published as a programme note for the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2019

When we first meet the two principal characters of Takahisa Zeze’s My Friend ‘A’ (Yūzai), they are hard to tell apart. We see them in medium shot being led by their new boss to the factory where they have sought work in Saitama – and as the camera is behind them, the face, and along with it the individuation, of either man is rendered invisible. Once they have got into their new work uniforms, their visages now hidden by the caps that they wear, they are even more difficult to distinguish. Still, it is clear from the way that Junichi Masuda (Toma Ikuta) introduces himself formally by name to his co-workers while ‘Hideto Suzuki’ (Eita) – not his real name – is aloof and silent, that only one of these two newcomers will be making any attempt at social integration with the other men. Yet even as the film’s initial effacement of these two men’s difference gradually gives way to character contrast – with ex-journalist Masuda striving to blend in with their dorm mates Shimizu and Utsumi, while Suzuki remains secretive and reclusive – ultimately My Friend ‘A’ will maintain its focus precisely on the similarity between these two men, united by their (separate) experiences of childhood trauma and guilt. 

“They’re half-dead,” a co-worker is heard to comment on Masuda and Suzuki when they first arrive at the factory. It is a description that might fit any number of characters in the film who have similarly been left in a haunted, arrested state by the damage of their past. Many years after his son Masato (Hoshi Ishida) caused the death of three children, divorced cab driver Shuji Yamauchi (Koichi Sato) is still (barely) living in the wreckage of shame and guilt, even as Masato himself tries to rebuild his own ruined life. Miyoko Fujisawa (Kaho) struggles to extract herself from the controlling grip of her bullying, porn-shooting ex while having to deal with the returning record of her own sullied history. And reformatory staffer Yayoi Shiraishi (Yasuko Tomita) has spent so many years devoted to the care of her delinquent, sometimes dangerous wards that she has neglected her relationship with her own daughter Yui. All these people stumble around, trapped in the rippling backwash of violent events in which they were sometimes only tangentially involved, and still shouldering a burden of responsibility that is not entirely, or even at all, their own.

While the springboard for Zeze’s film is the present-day murder of a young boy in a Saitama underpass, and its superficial resemblance to a spate of child killings from 17 years earlier (perpetrated by a disturbed, then 14-year-old Suzuki, then known by the name Kentaro Aoyagi), My Friend ‘A’ is not at all concerned with showing the grisly mechanics of these murders. For the film is not the serial killer thriller that its taboo-breaking, potentially lurid premise might suggest, but rather a sensitive drama highlighting those victims – including the killer himself – still stuck in the infernal orbit of childhood crimes, and unable to find redemption or resolution decades afterwards. 

Suzuki’s guilt is vast – but Masuda too is haunted by an incident from his school days in which, far from being the hero that some imagine, he may well have been a craven, treacherous enabler of tragedy. This event, and the sense of guilt and incomprehension that it brings, binds Masuda to Suzuki in unexpected ways, and opens up the possibility for mutual understanding and even friendship. It also allows Masuda once more to find his own voice, even if that voice may perhaps never be heard by his one intended confessor. 

The arrested nature of Suzuki and Masuda is reflected in the childlike locations (playgrounds, funfairs) to which they seem repeatedly drawn. These places, rooted in puerile pleasure, are offset by the primal (crime) scenes to which the two men will eventually return, confronting what they have done and reaching out – across the void – towards each other. These two isolated sites – the one under satellite dishes, the other beneath phone masts – are loci of remote communication, capturing the men’s alienation twinned with a longing for human contact.

My Friend ‘A’ is based on the 2013 novel Friend Guilt (Yūzai) by Gaku Yakumaru – a writer who, with books like Angel’s Knife (Tenshi no naifu, 2005), A Cop’s Eyes (Keiji no manazashi, 2011) and With You Who Are Not A (A de wa nai kimi to, 2016), has acquired a reputation for penning stories involving juvenile crime and its repercussions. Sombre and sad, yet offering glimpses of hope, it follows the walking dead casualties of trauma (be it bullying, abuse or murder) as they try, however vainly, to live full lives again. The issues (like child killing) with which it deals are inevitably emotive and inflammatory, but the film remains scrupulously responsible and level-headed as its parallel stories work hard to earn the viewer’s sympathies. In the end, these characters are certainly not all the same, but Zeze emphasises what they have in common.

© Anton Bitel