“Liverleaf” is a Japanese teen drama about bullying, based on the manga series “Misumisou” by Rensuke Oshikiri. The film stars Anna Yamada, Hiroya Shimizu and Rena Ohtsuka. This movie is set in a junior high about to close, the students are often unattended and their teachers are checked out waiting for the semester to end. A group of girls start bullying new girl Haruka Nozaki (Anna Yamada) and the results get bloody.
The film opens with Haruka Nozaki alone at her locker and her shoes are missing. A group of giggling school girls turn and run after they see Nozaki can’t find her shoes, which they have stolen from her locker. This seemingly innocent hazing for new girl Nozaki is the beginning of a bullying campaign that soon turns violent. We learn that Nozaki is new to this rural school and her father was recently transferred from Tokyo to this unnamed town for work. The school she is attending is scheduled to close at the end of the semester, and the current students will be the last ones to graduate. The teachers seem more uninterested in academics than the students do and Nozaki’s teacher is depressed and very detached from the students in her classroom. During one scene, her teacher Kyoko Minami (Aki Morita) ignores the students as they argue and fight in the class and she continues to write on the chalkboard as the chaos behind her builds. The atmosphere is weird to say the least, and gets worse as eventually the teachers are completely absent from class and the students are left on their own. Things take a very sinister turn after a fire breaks out in Nozaki’s house.
Director Eisuke Naito channels “Lady Snowblood” here and most of the action and bloodshed are in the second act which is nicely marked by the arrival of a snowstorm in the countryside. I really enjoyed the conflicts we see against the snowy backdrops. One scene in particular that stood out was when Nozaki bites her lip in a fit of rage and blood lines her lips. She and her love interest Mitsuru Aiba (Hiroya Shimizu) kiss and there is a pseudo vampiric exchange between them that I found very stylish.
During the second half. the acts of revenge start coming but I found the flow a bit off as we move back and forth between long dramatic scenes to scenes with more violence. There is also a curious lack of police and adults in general when teens go missing or have blood stained school uniforms.
During the third act, there is a development that comes out of nowhere, but I will assume Eisuke Naito is staying true to the manga source material. I did enjoy the use of a camera in the story by Aiba who acts as a surrogate director as he attempts to frame and direct some story within the film itself.
Hiroya Shimizu plays Aiba, the tall popular boy that Nozaki befriends and leans on for emotional support during most of the film. Aiba has dreamy compassionate eyes which are a stark contrast to the female bullies that often surround him. Seina Nakata as Yoshie Tachibana is second in command amongst the bullies and her snotty and cruel demeanour makes her often the most feared of the female gang. Rounding out the cast is perhaps my favourite character, Rumi Sayama played by Rena Ohtsuka. Rumi undergoes a forced haircutting scene by Nozaki’s tormentors as she becomes a scapegoat for Nozaki who stops attending school on advice from her father. Rena Ohtsuka portrays a damaged innocent which reminded me of Private Pyle played by Vincent D’Onofrio from “Full Metal Jacket”. Not as nuanced but the disposition and a change in the eyes are definitely there.
One of the best features of this film are its snowy scenes and the way they are shot by cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya. Nozaki’s red coat and white pants make her appear as a ghost floating through the blowing snow and Hidetoshi’s camera often lingers in place to let us watch this wraith move through the scene, and it is a beautiful thing to watch. There is also a focus on hair in the film. Each character has their own stylish cut and gang leader Taeko Oguro (Rinka Otani), the only strawberry blonde in the film, looks like she has a drop of blood mixed into evil white witch hair. She often oversees cruel acts and bullying from afar and looks on with disdain.
As far as the camera work goes, the film doesn’t get too creative. The movie is composed of mostly medium shots, tracking shots, and a few aerial drone shots, here and there. Notable is one slo-mo scene in act two, which is our first act of violence in the film. Most of the gore effects are decent but one or two look digital or done cheaply.
“Liverleaf” is a film that I am sure every teen will enjoy. But it does have enough going on outside of teen drama for the rest of us to appreciate, whether or not you are a manga fan. I think the moral of this story is not to ever let teens get their hands on sharp knives, and that teen angst is a force of nature that can turn deadly, fast.