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Bad Company

     Several FIPRESCI jury members noticed a generic resemblance, intentional or coincidental, between our Rotterdam winner, Tomoyuki Furumaya’s BAD COMPANY, and well-known American classics, STAND BY ME and AMERICAN GRAFFITI. All are memory dramas chronicling an earlier time at school, odes to deep friendships that didn’t last into adulthood as some students stayed put and never changed, some died early, others—budding artists and intellectuals--went off to the big city for college and/or exciting professions. The moods are nostalgic: though adulthood has been gained, something intangible from youth has been lost.

     The year for BAD COMPANY is 1980 in a verdant Japanese mountain town three hours from Japan, and Furumaya’s main character--blatantly autobiographical, as the filmmaker was born in 1968--is a middle-school student named Sadomoto (played by Yamato Okitsu, 15, the only professional among the youngsters). He’s a basically good kid who, nevertheless, is deeply alienated from the Japanese education process. Instead of studying, he hangs out with his low-achieving pals, who consider him their leader, although he’s ambivalent about anything which feels even mildly autocratic.

     One day, he and his friends do the unthinkable: on a lark, they shoplift from a local store. It’s the first time for petty thievery. When they are caught by their teacher, he calls them "scum," humiliating them in front of their peers, and he also hits them. Then he calls in their fathers, who come to school and also slap their sons. Even Sadomoto’s father hits him for the first time ever, shocking the boy. The point isn’t subtle but it surely is effective: this is how Japanese patriarchy works, an enforced code of bullying and beating, from teachers to tightlipped, incommunicative fathers. None have been equipped with the communicative tools to relate intimately with young boys.

     As a director, Furumaya is winning at making vivid the geography of this tiny town: the pleasant homes, the modern-architecture school, the sidewalks, the greenery, the small river with a suspended bridge where the boys go to escape, walking perilously along its edges. It’s a lived-in place for his tiny but very evocative drama, and there’s a fresh, lovely sense of ensemble from his child performers.

     But BAD COMPANY is most profound in its picture of how the Japanese school becomes the prime vehicle for promulgating society’s conservative, anti-intellectual values, for, above all, rewarding conformity, obedience, fitting in. It’s a mistake to see the teacher, Mr. Kobayashi, as a total monster. As Renoir would say, he has his reasons, his agenda, and he’s consistent in supporting the values he believes in. And any child who will go along with his pedagogic philosophy—the bulk of a Japanese class- will be treated civilly.

     But Sadamoto holds out. His integrity keeps him from giving in to the teacher, even when Mr.Kobayashi compliments a 30-page essay and wishes the boy to read it aloud at the school’s upcoming Culture Festival. Sadamoto’s answer: he throws his precious pages from the bridge into the waters below.

     BAD COMPANY is a kind of "portrait of the artist as a young, unhappy student." If Sadamoto suffers terribly at school, there’s a reward later on for his holding tight to his alternative values. At the end of the movie, we find that Sadomoto, as a young adult, moved away to Tokyo and became a comic book artist. That’s a stand-in biography for Tomoyuki Furumaya, who left this same place, Nagano Prefecture, to run off to a film academy. Our gain that he so hated middle school!

Rotterdam Jury President
(from FIPRESCI, the worldwide organisation of film critics, February, 2001)


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