Review: Cicada (Yamada, 2014) – CAAMFest 2015

Still from the movie Cicada

Cicada is the first feature-length film of director Dean Yamada and is competing in CAAMFest‘s Comcast Narrative Competition this year. It is also one of two narrative features in competition that I chose as a “must-see” in my CAAMFest preview.

Whether by design or by accident, school bullying seems to be one of the major themes of this year’s festival. In Cicada, the bullying of a young grade-school boy Ryota causes his headstrong mother, Nanaka (Hiroko Wada) to take matters into her own hands. Consulting her son’s teacher as well as her brother Jumpei (Yugo Saso), who is also a teacher at the same school, she decides to throw a birthday party for her son. Inviting everyone in the class but the bully, Nanaka hopes to win over Ryota’s classmates and make her son more popular. Meanwhile, Jumpei, preparing to propose to his long-time girlfriend Yukari (Hitomi Takimoto), goes in for a marriage physical and discovers he is impotent. Around the same time, he begins having dizzy spells during which he receives visions of cicada shells, clinging to a wall, a tree trunk, etc. Following clues in the visions, he tracks the shells down and begins to collect them. Also involved are the neighborhood liquor store owner Susumu (Sakae Kimura) and an old man, Gankane-san (Masayuki Yui), who, in his retirement, has begun creating depressing stories for children’s paper theater.

I had a difficult time writing that synopsis because, well, it all sounds pretty random, right? I mean, why cicada shells? And what has Jumpei’s infertility got to do with Ryota’s bullying? And how did Gankane-san and the liquor store owner get brought in? And why cicada shells??

Still, won over by the quiet humor and quirky characters, I couldn’t help enjoying this sweet film. Though far from flawless, all the characters in the movie are relatable, likable, or entertaining, and sometimes all three–particularly Masaki (Junpei Yasui), Ryota’s good-for-nothing father, who is a big child and an unapologetically degenerate gambler. And, even if the plot seems rather arbitrary, it makes emotional sense. There is a nameless thematic logic that seems to thread all the disparate pieces together such that I didn’t even think to question their appropriateness until I had to type this review. (Except for the cicada shells. Forgive me for harping on them, but I don’t understand the symbolism. Do they have some cultural meaning that’s been lost in translation? If anyone has a clue, let me know.) And the ending, which, in a lesser film might have threatened to be trite or overly sentimental, strikes just the right balance between hopeful and original.

Though it’s too late to catch this charming film at CAAMFest, it’s worth checking out if Cicada ever comes your way again!