‘What makes a person change into another person?’

School bullying is the main theme addressed in Ryohei Watanabe’s debut feature, but it also covers different aspects of friendships and coming of age issues in a mystery drama that is imaginatively made and – eventually – surprisingly shocking. This is all the more fascinating when considering how film was created. ‘I had never made a film that lasted longer than five minutes,’ Ryohei Watanabe reveals in the interview accompanying the DVD release. Shady is low budget film-making at its finest: well constructed and well executed and at a cost of a mere £10,000, made on a budget that wouldn’t provide everyone with dinner on most feature productions. It is a film that discusses teen issues in a highly believable way, but is not reduced to simple kitchen sink high school drama, indeed it takes its original premise as far from that as you could wish.

Kumada Misa is completing a bullying survey at school along with her classmates, and it’s making her feel uncomfortable. The forms are a response to the mysterious disappearance of her classmate Aya. Misa is insecure, feels unattractive and is belittled by her contemporaries who nickname her Pooh, as her surname contains the kanji for bear. She does have an affinity with animals, though, and can relate to them far more than she often can to people. She owns a cockatiel and looks after the school’s aquarium fish, who she names Kintaro. Perhaps there is some hope for her in the guise of classmate Izumi who was Aya’s close friend and has now decided to forge a friendship with Misa. Izumi is attractive and funny, and she also seems to be able to acquire exam papers prior to the exams being taken, although we later learn that this is the result of her relationship with a rather dubious teacher. Izumi and Misa’s friendship flourishes, although Misa does occasionally find her friend to be overbearing and increasingly demanding. And what of Aya? People or peas, who can say in a genetically confusing world?

The world of Shady is one where the emphasis is placed solidly on the female characters, the men relegated to minor roles such as teachers or policemen. The friendship between Misa and Izumi is the focus of the piece and its tentative development takes up a large part of the film as Misa slowly learns to trust her new friend. This slow build up is entirely necessary for, as the story progresses, the plot makes a major twist, transforming from a coming of age drama into something that is entirely different; decidedly sordid and increasingly horrific. The clues are there from the start: the story of Misa and Izumi’s friendship is intercut with a police investigation and we know that there is the mystery of Aya’s disappearance to solve – but the final revelations at the film’s conclusion are both surprising and shocking.

In many ways this is a film that embraces modern artistic creation – it is well constructed, shot, acted and directed and is thoroughly engaging. Simultaneously horrific and yet strangely believable, Shady is masterful filmmaking on a minimal budget.