The issue of bullying is one of the most significant nowadays (to say the least) in Asia, and particularly in Japan, where the statistics are truly frightening. According to The Japan Times, “The number of reported cases of bullying at Japanese schools hit a record high of over 320,000 in the 2016 academic year due partly to efforts to detect early signs, according to the education ministry. A total of 323,808 bullying cases were reported at elementary, junior high and high schools, up 43.8 percent from a year before, with the figure for elementary schools jumping 1.5 times.
The problem, however, is also at large in S. Korea, where according to The Korea Times, “More than 30 percent of students in South Korean elementary, middle and high schools are victims of bullying. The data was gathered by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs and found 32.2 percent of respondents said that they have experienced violence at school. By age groups, 38.6 percent of respondents between 9 and 11 years of age said they have been victims of assaults, while only 29.7 percent of respondents between 12 and 17 said they have been abused. Not all the respondents were victims. More than 20 percent of respondents answered that they have been offenders.”
Expectantly, a number of directors from those two countries decided to tackle the issue, which resulted in a number of quite impressive productions, which a number of them bordering (and occasionally reaching) on being masterpieces. Here are 10 great samples, including a film from Taiwan of at least equal quality.
1. Confessions (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010, Japan)
Based on the novel by Kanae Minato, “Confessions” deals with the tragic story of Yuko Moriguchi, a junior high school teacher. One morning in the classroom, after distributing milk to her students, she proceeds to inform them that this is her last day at school.
Two facts regarding this teacher were common knowledge, up to that point. Her husband is HIV positive and her daughter, who attended kindergarten, was drowned in the school’s swimming pool by accident. However, she discloses that her death was not an accident, but a murder, and the two perpetrators are presently in the classroom. She does not name them; nevertheless, she presents enough evidence for the rest of the class to not have doubts regarding the wrongdoers. Furthermore, she states that she has inserted blood from her husband inside the milk boxes of those two students, who have already consumed it.
Tetsuya Nakashima depicts the film mainly through flashbacks resulting from the confessions of the protagonists. Furthermore, he presents a number of social issues including sexuality, death and bullying, as well as the relationships between parents and children, between teachers and students, and between parents and teachers.
Another characteristic of the film is that the majority of the protagonists are drowning in their need for revenge, a notion that causes to the film’s audience to not be able to sympathize with any of them, despite the fact that they all are victims.
Equally impressive is the fact that he manages to provide humor, however cruel and dark, in a cold, psychological thriller.
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2. Liverleaf (Eisuke Naito, 2019, Japan)
“Liverleaf” is a Japanese teen drama about bullying, based on the manga series “Misumisou” by Rensuke Oshikiri.
A newly admitted transfer student, Haruka, gets bullied at her new school. Her only friend is another transfer student, Mitsuru. One day they meet up to go and take photos of the snow-covered village. On their way back, Haruka discovers that her house is on fire, with tragic consequences for her whole family. In the aftermath, she decides to exact revenge in the most violent way.
Eisuke Naito takes the concept of “bullying the bully” to its most extreme, as eventually, vengeful violence takes over the narrative in the most shocking fashion, while the teen drama elements seem to move the narrative even further to this particular direction.
Through this extremity, Naito also seems to put the blame to the lack of guidance these youths experience, both from their parents and their teachers, both of which shine through their absence.
Hidetoshi Shinomiya’s cinematography is one of the biggest traits of the film, with the scenes in the snow being the ones that stand out, being both meaningful and quite artful.
3. Han Gong-ju (Lee Su-jin, 2013, S. Korea)
The films is based a truly horrid actual event, where 41 high school students repeatedly raped five girls over the course of 11 months. The script stays quite close to the actual facts, focusing, though, on the titular girl. Initially we watch Gong-ju after the arrest of the perpetrators, having transferred to another school and living with the family of an ex-professor of hers along with his mother, an owner of a convenience store. Her parents have abandoned her, with her mother in a new romantic relationship and her alcoholic father still living in the village where she was born.
The girl tries to keep a low profile and even manages to make her host like her, despite her initial objections about her living there. In her free time, Gong-ju learns how to swim in the local pool, where she eventually meets another girl, Eun-hee, who actually imposes her friendship onto her, making her open up a little. Even this lesser happiness, though, does not last for long.
Lee Su-jin in his debut directs and pens a powerful, touching and occasionally brutally realistic film. His strongest point is the depiction of the protagonist, with the camera following her from a very close distance, drawing the spectator deeper and deeper in her world.
The film is definitely dramatic, but Lee manages to retain a sense of measure for the duration of it, avoiding the reef of the melodrama while retaining a sensitive approach toward a very difficult subject, with most of the events being implied rather than depicted. The use of flashbacks stresses this approach, despite the fact that their use in the beginning can be somewhat disorienting, although this is remedied as the story progresses.
The film is not completely void of shocking scenes, but the majority of them are presented toward the end, in a tactic that heightens the agony, both for the result and the roots of the girl’s issues. His message is quite eloquent: the cycle of violence never closes.
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4. All About Lily Chou Chou (Shunji Iwai, 2001, Japan)
The story revolves around two boys, Yuichi and Hoshino, starting from the first term of junior high school and finishing after the second, although in a non-linear narration, that begins midway, goes back to the beginning and then to the present again. The two of them become friends when they both join the kendo club, with Hoshino proving kind and very communicative, in contrast to the timid, introvert Yuichi. A summer trip to Okinawa after the end of the first term, and a near-death experience Hoshino endures, changes him immensely. Starting next term, he becomes a harsh manipulator of everyone around him, bullying Yuichi constantly and harshly, and even prostituting a classmate of theirs, Shiori, after blackmailing her. Shiori seems to have feelings for Yuichi, but he is interested more in Yoko, another alienated student, who also falls victim to Hoshino and his gang in the harshest way. Through all these torturing experiences, Yuichi’s only solace is pop idol Lily Chou Chou’s music and a fan site dedicated to her he is administrator of.
Iwai directs and writes a truly shocking film regarding school alienation and the terrifying cruelty of teenagers that leads to harsh cases of bullying. The diptych of Yuichi and Hoshino represents the victims and the perpetrators of both the aforementioned concepts, with the narrative focusing on the impact their (in)actions have both on them and those around them. The fact that both are unable to escape the circle of violence, some additional revealing regarding Hoshino’s radical change, and the truly shuttering finale stress the fact that in these concepts, everybody is a loser. Furthermore, Iwai seems to blame the parents for their torments, with them either being completely ignorant to what is happening in their children’s lives or completely unable to handle any issue that arises, with the scene in the principal’s office between Yuichi and his mother being the most evident sample.
In the 146 minutes of the movie, Iwai also deals with a plethora of other issues of contemporary Japanese society, such as Jk business (compensated dating between older men and adolescent girls), rape, social media (even in their early form of chat rooms) and the concept of idols.
However, his presentation of all the aforementioned is implemented in an abstract way, with many “artistic” intervals in-between the progress of the story, in a tactic that makes the film more beautiful, particularly through the combination of image and the almost constant use of classic and electronic pop, but in essence strips a great story from the impact it could have with a more “traditional” approach. This style is chiefly represented in the concept of Lily Chou Chou, a pop idol who never really appears in the film, although her impact is evident by the protagonists’ conduct, particularly regarding their neediness for something to hang on due to their alienation. (Panos Kotzathanasis)
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5. The King of Pigs (Yeon Sang-ho, 2011, S. Korea)
The story revolves around two former classmates, businessman Kyung-min and writer Jong-suk. In the present, both of their lives are in shambles. Jong-suk is forced to do menial work, such as ghostwriting, and has to face a rather obnoxious boss who keeps demeaning him. His frustration erupts violently toward his wife, who, despite his behaviour, seems to love him very much.
Jong-suk is in an even worse position since his business has gone bankrupt, and he has just killed his wife. After the murder, he calls Jong-suk, who he had not seen in 15 years, and the two of them go for a drink and start reminiscing about the past. Through flashbacks, the movie reveals the situations they faced in school, in a story of bullying, drama and constant violence that also involves a third member, Kim Chul, the “King of Pigs.”
Yeon Sang-ho (who is responsible for the direction, script, editing, character design and key animation, among others) uses the school environment to make a very harsh remark about a number of aspects of Korean society. The racism in school, where all students are classified according to the wealth of their families, who even give money to the school for their children to receive special treatment, is a main point of focus, as it highlights the concept of class warfare.
The privileged are known as “dogs”, while the ones at the bottom, as the three protagonists, are known as “pigs”. The subsequent bullying that ensues from top to bottom is another key element of the film, as is the social injustice involved, with the teachers pretending to not realize what is going on, and always turning on the “pigs”.
Kim Chul functions as a ray of hope in this hellish setting in which Kyung-min and Jong-suk live, but this is not a light film with a happy-ending, and Kim Chul’s way to face the bullies is to become worse than them, by being even more violent than they are. The disgrace and constant bullying even makes the two others to begin acting accordingly, although their true nature eventually takes over.
Lastly, a minor comment regarding consumerism is presented through Jong-suk’s sister.
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6. After My Death (Kim Ui-seok, 2017, S. Korea)
One day, high school girl Kyeong-min goes missing. She seemed to jump off a bridge to her death, but without a body, or a suicide note, no conclusion can be drawn. The next day the police arrive at her school to investigate the matter. Soon it is revealed that a classmate of hers, Yeong-hee was the last to see her. With no direct answers visible, the girl soon becomes the victim of bullying in her school, instigated by the now discovered dead girl’s mother and her classmates, who believe she is the one responsible for Kyeong-min’s death, and violence soon takes over.
Yeong-hee tries to find out on her own what happened to the girl, but as the school and her family offer no support in the bullying she experiences, she decides to commit suicide herself, in the most horrible fashion.
Quite similarly to the Japanese films about the subject (“Confessions” comes to mind), Kim Ui-seok wraps his social comments in a mantle of mystery and violence, with the latter offering a number of shocking scenes, as the ones in Yeong-hee’s house and the one in the funeral. Through this approach, that also uses Yeong-hee as medium into exploring the reasons teenagers commit suicide and retort to violence, Kim makes a rather harsh comment, which mainly focuses on teachers and schools in general, and parents.
Kim presents the former as an institution that just wants to save face and move on, hiding behind ceremony and rituals, while neglecting the actual needs of the students to the point of ignoring even the harsh events that take place here. Ignorance is also attributed to the parents, who seem to have no clue about what is going on with their children, as so eloquently portrayed by both Yeong-hee’s father and the deceased’s mother.
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7. Bleak Night (Yoon Sung-hyun, 2011, S. Korea)
The story moves in two axes, one occurring after Ki-tae’s death, with his estranged father searching for the reasons for his son’s death, and one before, which explains the events that led to the incident. In the second axis, Ki-tae is somewhat of a leader of a “gang” consisting of a number of high school boys, with the protagonists being introvert “Becky” (actually Baek Hee-joon); Dong-yoon, who is the only one occasionally standing up to him and the only one having a girlfriend, Se-jeong; Jae-ho, who also works at his mother’s flower shop and is his Ki-tae’s main lackey. Ki-tae holds the first two in high esteem, although he occasionally bullies Becky. During an incident where he tries to find a girlfriend for him, the two have something of a fallout, which eventually escalates in violence, both between the two, and Ki-tae and Dong-yoon.
In the first axis, the boys have been estranged, as Becky has moved to another school and Se-jeong has dropped out of school and is nowhere to be found. As Ki-tae’s father pressures them, the three remaining members meet once more, actually confronting what has happened.
Yoon Sung hyun pens and directs a film that takes a unique approach towards bullying and male friendship. In this case, the bully (Ki-tae) truly loves and cherishes his friends (Becky and Dong-yoon), but does not know any other way to show his feelings. Furthermore, after a fashion, the one bullied is actually him, although in psychological terms, by both the other two. This fact is magnificently portrayed in two very dramatic, one-on-one scenes, where Ki-tae obviously seeks for their forgiveness, but most of all, for their approval and their acknowledgement that they are his friends. This tactic is what sets apart “Bleak Night” from the plethora of school dramas regarding bullying, as, this time, the protagonist, and the one whose psychology is in the center of the story is the bully himself.
These two scenes highlight the level of acting in the film, with Lee Je-hoon as Ki-tae, Park Jeong-ming-I as Becky, and Seo Jun-young as Dong-yoon portraying magnificently their conflict. Lee in particular is astonishing, as his shock, his subsequent rage and his eventual grief from their attitude is portrayed in astonishing fashion. Park Jeong-ming-I is at his best when he is bullied, but not intimidated in any way and Seo Jun-young has his moment in the finale.
Another comment Yoon Sung hyun makes about bullying is that the cause of young people acting in that fashion usually derives from their parents.
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8. Mon Mon Mon Monsters (Giddens Ko, 2017, Taiwan)
Lin Shu-wei is the archetypal nerd. He is shy, weak, a permanent victim to the bullies of the class, does not have any friends and always get the best grades. The movie starts with him being accused for stealing the class’s treasury, with the leader of his “torturers”,
Tuan Ren-hao, humiliating him even more, to the amusement of his girlfriend, Si-hua, and of the rest of his group, Liao Kuo-feng, Yeh Wei-chu, who were the actual perpetrators.
Lin, having no alternative, turns to Mrs Lee, the homeroom teacher, who does not seem to care in particular, and instead forces him to confess the theft, and then, as a punishment, to spend some hours helping the elderly in an asylum, along with the actual culprits.
During their visit there, the students stumble upon a duo of man-eating monsters, and through a succession of extreme events, end up kidnapping the younger one, imprisoning it in their hideout, an abandoned space which was previously used for the maintenance of a pool. Thus begins a “game” of torturing the monster, which soon though, transforms into something very dangerous, as the sister of the creature is on their heels. At the same time, and despite the horrid occurrences, Lin begins to enjoy the company of his former (and current) “torturers”.
Giddens Ko directs a movie that combines fantasy/horror with surrealism in impressive fashion, in a narrative that unveils as a dream. Through this unusual, but rather entertaining approach, he manages to present a series of extreme, but also realistic social comments.
The role of teachers, bullying and in general the school environment are the most obvious, but as the story progresses, human nature, and particularly the way people can become worse than monsters becomes the central concept, along with crime and punishment.
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9. River’s Edge (Isao Yukisada, 2018, Japan)
The story takes place in the 90’s and revolves around a number of characters who attend the same high school. Haruna is a girl who appears detached from everything, despite the fact that she has a boyfriend, Kannonzaki, and is part of a gang of the three that also includes Rumi, a girl who has sex with mature men who shower her with expensive gifts, and another girl, who is the gossiper of the class. Ichiro is a homosexual boy who is constantly bullied and beaten, particularly from Kannonzaki, who seems to hold a grudge against him. Haruna realizes the fact and she repeatedly tries to save Ichiro, with the two of them forming a peculiar friendship. Ichiro eventually introduces Haruna to his “treasure”, the dead body of a man who has been rotting in the weeds in the edge of the river that passes through the city (thus the title) and the other friend of his, Kozue, a teen model with bulimic tendencies. The three of them also become a gang, with their relationship resulting in a number of shockwaves, particularly regarding Kannonzaki, and Kanna Tajima, a girl who is supposedly Ichiro’s girlfriend, although their relationship is extremely one-sided. As angst, truth, and sex take over the various relationships, violence soon ensues.
Yukisada takes the somewhat far-fetched story of the original in order to direct a film that focuses on the kids of the era, and the consequences the lack of guidance from parents and teachers (both of which are almost non-existent in the film) have to youths. This concept is actually depicted in every character. Haruna has adopted a stance of detachment and insensitivity towards almost everything that takes place around her, with her sole care seeming to be Ichiro, although the reasons never become actually clear (perhaps he likes him as a man, although it never becomes clear). The same applies to Ichiro, who has found a rather unusual solace in the weeds (both literally and metaphorically) in order to cope with the constant bullying he has to face. In the same fashion, Kannonzaki has turned to violence in order to cope with his broken family, and Rumi to sex for roughly the same reasons, who include her extremely nosy sister. Kanna has “decided” to turn a blind eye to Ichiro’ s indifference in order to convince herself that she has found love (and to brag to her schoolmates who consider him gorgeous) while Kozue’s effort to stay thin and beautiful according to the standards of the teen idol concept, has led her to an extreme case of bulimia and a detachment similar to the one of Haruna’s.
Through these characters and their behaviour, Yukisada paints a rather bleak picture of the world during the time, with the kids appearing to belong to a lost generation, as they roam the streets aimlessly and without any kind of resolve to pursue goals they do not even know about. Even those who do know their goals though, (Kanna wants to be with Ichiro, Kozue to pursue a career in the show business, Rumi to get expensive stuff) are presented even more disoriented and futile, to the point that their efforts become their destruction.
In that fashion, Yukisada paints a really dark portrait of the era, a world where hope is nowhere to be found and violence and death seem to lurk in every relationship. In this effort, he is benefitted the most by Kenji Maki’s cinematography who presents images where grey and dark colors dominate, with the tactic reaching its apogee in the presentation of the reef area, which appears as a dystopian setting, while sharing some (minor similarities) regarding its context, with the reefs in Kaneto Shindo’s “Onibaba.”(a hopeless place that provides the sole source of hope for the lost characters) It is also worth mentioning that the narrative includes a number of interviews with the protagonists that shed light to their actual circumstances and characters, and a small number of flashbacks that are concluded during the finale. All of the above elements are implemented quite nicely in the film through Tsuyoshi Imai’s editing, who retains the usual, relatively slow pace of the Japanese drama.
10. A Silent Voice (Naoko Yamada, 2016, Japan)
The story revolves around Shoya Ishida and starts when he is attending elementary school. Shoya is a sort of delinquent (as much as one can be during elementary years) but is quite popular in the classroom, sitting in the same desk with a girl, Naoka Ueno, and having two very loyal friends. However, things change completely when a new student arrives in school, Shoko Nishimiya. She is proven to be deaf and due to that has some speech impeachment. Despite her being a kindhearted girl who even wants to become friends with Shoya, he starts bullying her, and soon after Naoka does the same, although in verbal fashion, for the most part. However, things go too far when this continues for quite some time, and Shoya’s mother is forced to transfer her to another school. This incident turns the whole classroom against Shoya, making him a pariah, despite his mother’s efforts who makes him apologise to Shoko and her mother. His status remains until high school, with Shoya having no friends whatsoever, to the point where he decides to commit suicide. At the last moment, though, he decides against it and instead goes to find Shoko. He even makes a friend, another loner named Tomohiro Nagatsuka, and after getting reacquainted with Shoko, the two of them embark on a trip of reconciliation with the “old gang”, including Sahara, another former classmate, and Naoka The process, though, does not prove easy, at all.
Naoko Yamada presents a sensitive and tender perspective to a number of issues in the contemporary Japanese society, and through them, depicts what it means to be Japanese, nowadays. In that fashion, the anime deals with bullying, and the concept of the bully becoming the one bullied, cruelty among children, suicidal tendencies, friendship, regret, apology, family, forgiveness, change and evolving, all of which are present through a coming-of-age setting that highlights them in the best way possible. Yamada uses some original and quite impressive techniques to depict all of the above. The X’s on the faces of people around Shoya, that symbolize the fact that he has chosen to ignore them as much as they have, is a great sample of this tendency, while the moments that these X’s are removed comprise some of the best scenes in the film. The frequent depiction of the character’s shoes, whose purpose is revealed toward the end, is another trait, while the narrative, that actually goes back and forth in time also helps the presentation of the story.
Some minor fanservice could not be missing, but overall, Yamada keeps a very serious tone throughout the film, with some comic relief moment, mostly presented through Nagatsuka, and a turn for the dramatic, during the end of the anime. The only issue I found is that the film lags a bit towards the middle, in a tactic that results in its duration surpassing 120 minutes. Even this fault though, is minor, and does not detract much from the general elaborateness of the title. I also found the fact that the supernatural is completely absent, quite refreshing.