Given the stagnant state of its numerous characters, Shinji Aoyama’s Backwater is certainly appropriately named, although the film is so loaded with references to various forms of effluence that at one point I had to double check that the film wasn’t called ‘Backwash’. That’s not necessarily a criticism, but it is a warning… this is not light entertainment. Aoyama’s film is a uniquely Japanese take on coming-of-age anxieties and identity crises, viewed through a peculiarly horror-tinged lens.
Early on we meet the protagonist, Toma (Masaki Suda), on his 17th birthday, as his girlfriend, Chigusa (Misaki Kinoshita), helps him celebrate the day with a sexual encounter. The experience is not their first, but it soon becomes clear that these episodes have been consistently lacklustre. Toma is beginning to wonder if there is something missing – and he seems to have a decent idea of what it is. Toma has a pathological obsession with not becoming like his father (Ken Mitsuishi), a man who can only obtain satisfaction through perverse and violent acts. Toma’s mother (Yuko Tanaka), who has long since left his father, is equally worried about what her son my might become. As Toma wrestles with his identity and violent urges, the departure of his father’s victimised lover (Yukiko Kinoshita), results in things deteriorating quickly and horrifically.
Masaki Suda has a difficult challenge in bringing to life a character who is both disturbed and terrified by his own thoughts, and this proves to a be a little beyond his abilities. In fact, he seems pretty much lifeless throughout. Ken Mitsuishi plays the father as little more than a cliché, although this seems to be intentional. Misaki Kinoshita, Yuko Tanaka, and Yukiko Kinoshita provide the real performances here, as three women exposed to domestic and sexual abuse, each of whom deals with the situation in their own way.
A screenplay that depends a little too much on repetition and heavy-handed symbolism comes off as far less profound than seems to have been intended, and it serves to disengage the viewer from the experience. However, stunning cinematography by Takahiro Imai provides a much-needed counter to the rather confronting themes and imagery prevalent throughout. This is not an emotional experience so much as a cerebral one, but unfortunately it’s not entirely successful on that front either.
A capsule review from the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival.