This World of Ours, a youthfully nihilistic, epic, and episodic take on nihilistic youth in 21st-century Japan, represents the coming out of its writer and director, Nakajima Ryo, not just as a filmmaker to watch but in a larger sense as well. Nakajima made his debut feature after a period of posthigh school isolation when he became a hikikomori, one of the growing number of young Japanese who voluntarily cocoon themselves in their rooms for months and sometimes years.
The fundamental disconnect that drives the hikikomori to solitary confinement is made palpable in the three high school students at the center of Nakajima's ambitious, unwieldly, and at times ugly film, even as they flit through populated hallways and shopping arcades. At the start of the film Hiroki (Yoshihiko Taniguchi) and Ryo (Satoshi Okutso) spend their time bullying ugly duckling Mitarai (Hasegawa Souta) while enduring the verbal abuse of one of their teachers, Mr. Iwayama (Shinmon Akao). Mitarai is also a plaything for the blankly coy Ami (Arisa Hata), who encourages him to seek revenge when she isn't shit-talking him with his tormentors.
These schoolyard cat and mouse games give way to the film's unsettling centerpiece: after a night out drinking, Ami stumbles home alone, while the boys, at the behest of an older peer, take one of their female companions to his lair and brutally gang-rape her. The scene is clearly indebted to 1971's A Clockwork Orange (as is the film, which also evokes Akihiko Shiota's contemporary cruel stories of youth and even Wakamatsu Koji's gonzo 1969 film Go Go Second Time Virgin), down to the reedy, compressed version of Beethoven's Ninth which, appropriately, is more suggestive of a ringtone than a symphony on the soundtrack.
A Clockwork Orange was controversial because of its highly stylized presentation of graphic violence. Like director Stanley Kubrick, its protagonist, Alex (Malcolm McDowell), is obsessed with aesthetics: it's not the film's mere juxtaposition of "Ode to Joy" with heinous acts that is so shocking but rather the criminal's adulatory investment in something so beautiful. In comparison, Nakajima's youths hardly have an investment in anything, and the director seems marginally invested in them. Hiroki is clearly paralyzed by what he has done but is so unempathetic that he can only fret over how a criminal record will lower his already dismal prospects of landing a white-collar job. They commit their acts of self-mutilation, bullying, and murder in a zero-sum game of identity formation, with every painful twist caught by Nakajima's washed-out, often handheld camera. If there are aesthetics at work here, they are clearly those of the YouTube auteur: Nakajima keeps his characters in anxious proximity to the lens. Every shot is practically a close-up.
It is unsurprising then, that these youths talk about Sept. 11 in tones of respectful awe, treating it as the ne plus ultra of how to leave your mark on the world. Ryo, reeling from a bloody confrontation with Iwayama and rejection at the hands of his older sister, decides much like real-life counterpart Seung-Hui Cho or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold the only way out is to commit an act of terrorism. This World of Ours even opens with slo-mo footage of the Twin Towers burning, accompanied by the portentous strains of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, a juxtaposition that Ryo could have made in a computer lab while cutting class.
The same music wafts over the crowded halls of the high school in Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003), a far more elliptical take on teen-on-teen violence whose cataclysmic ending is made all the more so by the camera's constant gentle proximity to the revolving social cross section on display. But while Van Sant's film seems perfumed by adolescent ennui, that isn't the only emotion the director trafficks in.