Based on The Hungry Lion’s marketing campaign, which features images of teenage girls taking selfies, you might think that this is a Black Mirror-style parable about the dangers of invasive technology and social media-inspired narcissism. And it’s true that social media—in this case, the sharing of a mysterious video—plays a role. But I’d argue that the movie is really about the terrifying power of the crowd, and specifically the tendency of people to simply agree with the majority, regardless of what the evidence (and their own sense of ethics) may say.
The film’s premise is simple: in the first scene, we see a high school teacher being led away from a classroom. He’s been arrested for having a relationship with a student, and there’s a video online, which quickly goes viral. One of the students casually mentions a rumor that the girl in the video looks like Hitomi (Urara Matsubayashi), a popular and attractive student with a handsome older boyfriend (Atomu Mizuishi). She jokingly insists that the person in the video isn’t her, and her friends believe her…for a while. And then suddenly it doesn’t seem to matter what the truth is, because the rumor has grown legs, and Hitomi becomes an object of ridicule and abuse simply because the crowd chooses to believe that she slept with the teacher.
All of this happens slowly and quietly, with no raised voices or scenes of tears and heartbreak, which makes it all the more devastating. By the time Hitomi’s abuse escalates to truly horrific (but not unrealistic) levels, we realize that to her abusers she has become a thing, not a person—an object to be discarded, purely for being associated with a random rumor. The people who should support her—her boyfriend, her friends, her sister, the school teachers and administrators, even her own mother—all fail her spectacularly.
Their failure is part of the film’s damning indictment of Japan’s bullying culture, which has rarely been portrayed with more stark realism on film. Bullying is hardly a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, but what is somewhat unique is the sense that bullying—even to the point of extreme violence and being forced to leave a school—is an inevitable part of life, and that adults are powerless to stop it. The adults in the film spout meaningless platitudes about triumphing over adversity or the dangers of cell phones for teenagers, but they blatantly ignore their own complicity in allowing Hitomi’s bullying to continue. The horror in The Hungry Lion doesn’t only come from the abuse inflicted on Hitomi, but from the pathetically wishy-washy response of the adults around her.
The Hungry Lion is a well-made and powerful film, one that made me feel like I was a fly on the wall in a high school—something that can’t be said for quite a few Japanese films set in schools, where young people use flowery language and engage in over-the-top shouting matches that don’t feel authentic. The teens in The Hungry Lion get all the details right—they tease each other (sometimes gently, sometimes with shocking cruelty), they flirt, they talk rapidly over each other, they giggle and stare, they feign shock and horror at mundane happenings. And when they do turn cruel, it isn’t with demonic glares or vicious attacks, but with silence, snickers, or whispers.
The film’s structure and aesthetic choices add to its impact. Short scenes (the film itself runs only 74 minutes) are each divided by a quick fade to black. This mirrors a major theme of the film: the quickness with which digital scandals flare up and then fade away, only to make room for the next one. There is no background music. The camera is frequently placed in the back of a room or off to the side, making us feel like we’re observing the action from nearby (there are almost no shot-reverse shot compositions and the camera rarely moves during a scene). Certain repeated images are haunting, like the view from an apartment entrance camera, which initially shows images of Hitomi’s mysteriously smiling friends but eventually reveals no one at all, showing that the world has lost interest in her. It’s also important to note the things that we don’t see—the mysterious video, for example, or images that the students gawk at on their phones, or certain scenes of violence. In a world where everyone’s private lives seem to be constantly on display, some things are still kept hidden from us.
As powerful and refreshingly frank as the film is, it’s also a deeply unpleasant viewing experience, especially in its final third. I left the theater feeling sad and angry, staring at my fellow train passengers and wondering how many of them were as monstrous as the seemingly “normal” people depicted in the film. Most of them, I decided. That feeling hasn’t quite gone away.
Still, I wouldn’t call the film nihilistic in the manner of Tetsuya Nakashima’s Kokuhaku (Confessions) and Kawaki (The World of Kanako), two movies focused on teenagers that disgusted me for the way that they seemed to take a voyeuristic delight in heavily stylized scenes of violence, especially sexual violence. Those movies made cruelty seem cool. The Hungry Lion certainly doesn’t do that—it’s just as horrified by what its characters do as the viewer will be. And while the film (thankfully) doesn’t offer up any hollow moralizing or neat solutions, maybe, just maybe, holding up this sort of a mirror will cause a few viewers to reflect on the cruelty they’ve witnessed or inflicted, and on what they can do to keep it from happening again.