Over the Fence

Michael Potts | 1/11/2017

A difficult film to grapple with, Over the Fence combines strong performances and scene construction with what feels like an incomplete script.

Set in the town of Hakodate, Hokkaido, the film follows divorcee Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri), who lives a lonesome existence broken up by his days at a vocational school where he is retraining as a carpenter. He has little meaningful contact with others until a fellow classmate convinces him to come to a cabaret bar where he meets Satoshi (Yu Aoi). An eccentric children’s fun park employee, she immediately takes a liking to him and, through a turbulent and confronting courtship with her, Shiraiwa is able to deal with the demons of his past and move forward with his life.

The lead performances of Odagiri and Aoi are skilful in their own respective ways. Shiraiwa, a shy loner, is portrayed thoughtfully by Odagiri. His body language and delivery illustrate convincingly an awkward man lacking self-esteem without ever dipping into caricature. Aoi, on the other hand, brings a frenetic energy to Satoshi and she deftly handles a mentally unstable character which lesser actors would not have been able to pull off. Her ability to shift from quiet and moping, to brash and quirky, to raging and aggressive, almost at the drop of a hat, but almost never appearing forced, is commendable. This is backed up by a supporting cast who, comprised primarily of Shiraiwa’s classmates and his ex-wife, by and large bring respectable performances to their roles. This is especially so of classmate Mori (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), whose brooding anger and resentment of those around him is palpable from a mere glance at his expression and posture.

Over the Fence also makes good use of its physical setting, with each location and structure serving as its own reflection of the characters who inhabit them, from Shiraiwa’s small, dimly lit home by the sea, to Satoshi’s low traffic fun park workplace, where children and animals are her principal company. This is complemented by the lack of background music, with the main theme little more than an eerie, oceanic refrain that wails unnervingly at choice moments, allowing the viewer to take the scenes as they are without any artificial musical interference. There’s a decent amount for an observant viewer to sink their teeth into.

All of these positives are, however, confronted with one noticeable weakness which fundamentally holds them back. This problem is the narrative itself; namely, the audience is not given sufficient information to understand the main characters. Satoshi patently suffers from some mental illness, quite possibly bipolar disorder, and she is further shown to be an oddball by her constant mimicking of bird behaviours and other manic idiosyncrasies. Shiraiwa is depressive, following the breakdown of his marriage and all of who he is and what he does stems from that dark period in his life. The issue is that the audience is told so little about Shiraiwa’s past and nothing of Satoshi’s. This leads to problems in making sense of both of them, and their relationship. Shiraiwa in particular is problematic as certain assumptions about what kind of person he is permeate the story, but these are arguably unreasonable based on the meagre information we’re given. Even more so, upon discovery of the reason for the breakdown of his marriage, a serious question arises over why Shiraiwa pursues Satoshi at all. Perhaps this is commentary on love and life, but it’s difficult to shake the feeling that there are scenes missing which the audience really needed to be shown.

Conclusion 

Over the Fence is a contemplative film, exploring the lives of flawed, sometimes broken people. It can be difficult to get a proper read on, and what you think of it will probably come down to how much you’re willing to read into the story and characters on screen, or perhaps on one’s own life experience. There is real cinematic and dramatic skill here, but it’s not for everyone.