A little known movie, Like Grains Of Sand is quite simply one of the best Japanese films I have ever seen. This remarkably insightful drama explores the relationships of a small circle of Japanese high school students over a short period of time, and manages to gently ease out several very stirring comments about friendship, sexuality, and the meaning of love itself.
Shortly after seeing the film for the first time and being pretty much knocked back by the questions it posed, I dubbed it an "anti-romance", as it is certainly no ordinary film about teenagers pairing off in roundabout ways. Films that are so unabatedly angst-ridden and raise romance to an unbelievable "conquers all" status certainly hold no interest for me anyway, so it was very refreshing to find Like Grains Of Sand, which takes a whole a new, very discursive, approach.
As the cast of characters are introduced, this film's sheer range of script immediately comes to the fore, effortlessly presenting idle banter between school mates one minute, and tense confrontations the next, with notable credibility and realism. The main male characters are three friends: easy-going, likeable, yet somewhat blank Yoshida; shy and thoughtful Ito; and the jovial and cocky Kambara. In the first few scenes, it is revealed that Ito is in fact homosexual and has feelings for his good friend Yoshida, though neither of the other boys are aware of this. The tangles begin when a new girl in school appears, Aihara. A quiet and disturbed loner, for reasons that are revealed near the end of the film, Aihara seems to sense Ito´s hidden feelings and is drawn to him because of his secret, and at first teases him. To complicate matters, Yoshida also develops an attraction to the new girl, despite his less-than-wholehearted relationship with another girl from the class, Shimizu.
Things begin to move when Kambara inadvertently discovers the truth about Ito's sexuality. An embarrassed and confused Kambara cruelly spreads the word that Ito has feelings for Yoshida, and the various reactions of Ito's friends and classmates which ensue make for interesting viewing indeed. Yoshida, being a generally nice guy, is not about to condemn his best friend for being attracted to him, but he soon discovers he cannot be as passive about the situation as he would like. Not wishing to reject his friend, but plainly and simply not returning his feelings, this culminates in a gripping long scene where Yoshida agrees to let Ito kiss him. Yoshida, inescapably feeling that it is wrong, pushes Ito back but is somehow unable to just tell his friend the truth, that he doesn´t feel the same. This excruciatingly drawn-out moment is very impressive, and is not something to be seen often in cinema. Happening fairly early in the film, this event creates a very uneasy rift between the two boys.
When Ito's father learns of his sexuality, he is ashamed of his son and feels it necessary that he attend a local clinic. Coincidentally, Aihara also attends the same clinic for her own problems, and it is here that the two finally have a proper conversation, and subsequently become friends. Meanwhile, Yoshida's infatuation with Aihara grows as he and Shimizu drift apart. However, Aihara seems upset (almost disgusted) by Yoshida´s attitude towards Ito, and is not impressed when Yoshida begins to make his feelings clear...though it never is certain if she actually likes him or not, not even by the end.
What is special about Like Grains Of Sand is that these more or less common relationship problems are actually treated with very careful consideration, and give rise to a rich flood of intriguing questions about the thoughts and feelings behind the actions of each of the characters. The tone is always serious and sincere, and only occasionally embellished by gentle music. The uncertainties are only amplified as the film continues, and reaches a truly unsettling final section as Yoshida and Ito follow Aihara to her holiday hideaway, a beach in the south of Japan. Here, in a storm of emotions and confusion, their understanding of what romantic feelings mean at all just breaks down, and I would be surprised if any attentive viewer were to watch this and not be challenged by the strange questions Aihara throws at Yoshida. It is here where the term "anti-romance" suddenly becomes an appropriate description of the film.
This winner of several film festivals, directed by Ryosuke Hashiguchi, is an incredible piece of work. Unfortunately the inclusion of a homosexual kiss has since, for some reason, pushed this film into some kind of "gay cinema" bracket, making it even more difficult to find (and ignominious to seek out for we upstanding jocks). This, and the misconception that this is another high-school-sweethearts-caper could possibly stand in the way of this film ever getting the recognition it deserves. And that's a real shame.