(Ju-yon-sai) Hirosue Hiromasa / Japan / 2007
“Forget the constitution, school rules are supreme”. With gems in the dialogue like this Fourteen superbly captures the emotional flurry that it is to be fourteen years old and channels the inevitable comedown into violence and psychosis. Building from a shocking start the film sculpts itself into an exacting depiction of young teenagers; including a considerable amount of Japanese repression that although culturally distinct, certainly adds to the state of mind that some teens find themselves in. It also has one of the nastiest piano teachers ever in a film which carries appeal to anyone who resented being forced to learn an instrument as a child.
Fourteen courts accessibility by comparing the adults to the teens. Just as in The Breakfast Club where a hard-nosed teacher played by Paul Gleason shares a beer with the janitor turning the character briefly from oppressor to grown-up teen, the film compares the struggles of a current batch of wayward teens to their teachers. The set-up is that Ryo, a young female teacher, has had exactly the kind of psychotic teenage past that some of the behaviour of her current pupils might lead to. In the opening scenes the young Ryo is witnessed being interrogated by a teacher for setting fire to the school pet house. Recalling slaves prostrate upon an auctioneer's stage the teacher examines Ryo's mouth and fingertips for nicotine stains and Ryo meekly submits, caught between childhood submission and adult rebellion. She gets her violent revenge on the teacher in the next scene and is next seen talking to her psychiatrist many years later. Ryo has now become a teacher herself after years of therapy but her doctor is concerned that this career decision may just be a means of resolution.
Through a couple of teen characters and a few teachers, Fourteen latches onto the conceit of teenage ambition: that for almost everybody parental ambition will be thwarted as teens gradually realise that they too will emulate their parents in failure. It then takes that disappointment and frequently channels it into violence. Even the adults are not immune to the negative feedback loop, again signposting the universal nature of the scenario. Sugino, the other major adult character – a part time piano teacher and childhood acquaintance of Ryo, teaches piano to one boy who despite his mother's optimism and drive resolutely lacks any musical talent. Reliving his own failed ambitions to be a pianist (he now works for an electric company) Sugino has to stifle his laughter at his pupil's incompetence before all but telling him to quit. Later the boy attempts to ambush Sugino only to lead to an unforgettable scene where Sugino cuts a piano wire every time the boy plays a wrong note!
Visually Fourteen is often composed of dream-like corridors or other narrow passages, that appear to stretch out to infinite lengths. In this way Fourteen looks much like Gus Van Sant's Elephant where teens wander lonely school corridors which later become killing grounds. The opening incident in Ryo's past takes place in one such very light space. Unnervingly one later sequence, where a boy exacts revenge on his peers has him riding a bicycle along city streets for a period before pedalling up a narrow lane full of students, whereupon he casually whacks one on the back of the head with a log. Whereas in Elephant the corridors precede the violence in this dreamlike state, here they are part of it hemming everybody into some ceaseless cycle.
Depicting the weaker, sensitive kids well, the physical ones are more of a mystery because they already are mostly feral and way off the rails. They cause the most problems for the adults eventually causing Ryo to partially regress and Sugino to assess his actions. Throughout some boys are having a really quite violent feud into which the adults become briefly involved. At the start whilst waiting at traffic lights, Sugino's shirt becomes smeared in blood from one such altercation which he then spends the rest of the film vainly trying to remove. Throughout he begins to come to terms with his own abusive behaviour in the present leading to the painful endpoint in a dry cleaners when yet again the stain has resolutely refused to budge: Sugino emits a keening moan of anguish.
Aside from violence the only adult really shown to engage with this bunch of teens is the tough male teacher who maintains harsh authoritarian discipline throughout only to be shown up as a bully himself at the end. He psychologically demolishes a teen on a sports team – first demoting the kid to the reserve bench and then hitting him, and then hitting himself to prove his superiority. Though Ryo's and Sugino's emotional arcs are nicely handled, the implication in Fourteen is that we resent our teenage years but then propagate them ourselves. Painful brilliant stuff.