Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Masahiro Kobayashi's Bashing is that it is uncompromising in its condemnation of Japanese society. And this is not light praise. It opens stating that "This film is a fiction loosely based on real events." Indeed, in 2004 three Japanese civilians, two journalists and one aid worker, were kidnapped in Iraq in an attempt to get Japan to pull it's 1100 non-combat soldiers out of Iraq. Originally advised not to travel to Iraq, the hostages returned home to signs saying "You got what you deserve." Seen as an embarrassment to the entire country, the three were ostracized and simply went into hiding.
Bashing echoes many aspects of the real story—right down to verbiage used in negotiations by the Japanese Foreign Ministry—modeling the lead character, Yuko, after the young female aid worker who was in Iraq helping children. The film begins six months after Yuko's return to Japan, trying to hold down a job and move on with her life. But the harassment from strangers, co-workers, acquaintances is overwhelming in the small seaside town. Yuko's social suffocation is palpable with only her father standing by her, albeit silently. Yuko is a young woman, emotionally unequipped to handle the situation. Resigned to the circumstances, it is hard not to be frustrated by Yuko's helplessness (turning the guilt of 'blaming the victim' on the audience.)
The film itself is an austere contemplation of complex human emotions. It is far to personal and intimate to encompass the whole of Japan, instead focusing on society distilled down to individuals in a small community. Bashing is pared also down to a minimal pallet and mere ambient sound which adds to the oppression. Moments of beauty, spare as they are, exists in the grey sky and sea outside Yuko's apartment that she shares with her father and stepmother.
Morality is unavoidable in this incredibly unjust story that would be easy to write off as an exaggerated account if you weren't aware of the actual events. Fusako Urabe's performance initially seems one-dimensional until her shy character starts to reveal complexities that no doubt existed far before leaving for Iraq. Urabe's nuance only becomes evident near the end of the film when she gives a heartfelt (and devastating) explanation of her feelings to her stepmother. Poignantly, it's Yuko's personal desires ("selfishness") that lead an entire nation to condemn her.
Few films are so pointed and yet so subtle as Bashing. Yet its oeuvre is so slight it feels as though it might just float away before your eyes. To Kobayashi's credit, he resists a heavy-handed approach, leaving the film and the actors to speak for themselves without the burden of contrivances and devices. I took note of Bashing after I read about it at its debut at Canes three years ago. But the local disdain for the film seemed to quash any potential international play. It played at scattered film festivals gathering little momentum. The fact that it has resurfaced on DVD here in the US is a testament to tenacity.
Bashing was recently released by Facets on DVD.