Harmful Insect (Gaichu) [2001] • Japan

Aoi Miyazaki plays a thirteen year old girl whose mother attempts suicide after her father abandons the family. Her classmates gossip in the bathrooms about a supposed affair she had with her sixth grade teacher. She skips school and her only friend is killed by a gang. Her mother’s new boyfriend attempts to rape her. It’s seems awful to take such a cute and accomplished young actress and punish her for ninety minutes and call it a film, but it's the strength of Miyazaki's performance that makes Harmful Insect a powerful and haunting experience.

I was furious and hated this movie five minutes after it was over. It had seemed slow and unfocused and the ending, awful. I still think it’s an unpolished film, not that attractive to sit through, but I have a better appreciation for the vision of it after being unable to not think about it for a while. I won’t say exactly what the ending is, but it has to do with the sixth grade teacher who leaves the school and goes to work in a nuclear power plant amidst the rumors of a relationship with Miyazaki’s character. The film is punctuated throughout with screens of written correspondence between the teacher and Miyazaki. It’s not definitive that there was a sexual relationship and the ambiguity is important. That the two of them actually correspond is telling.

One of the best scenes in the film is when Miyazaki’s character is talking with a classmate she has started going out with. We’ve seen them innocently kiss and we see this as a first step, perhaps, in her trying to re-assimilate into a normal middle school life. The two characters are in an classroom, empty of people but full of desks. The boy inquires about the rumors surrounding her relationship with the teacher. Miyazaki, without hesitation, gently pulls one of the desks from the back of the room to the front, knocking it into rows of desks and chairs as she exits. It’s an outstanding scene and really highlights how well this sixteen year old actor is able to internalize her character’s angst and scream it out loud without making a sound.

I can’t say enough about how good Miyazaki’s performance is. I’ve mentioned how relentlessly her character is punished throughout the film. The amazing thing is how quietly and resigned, how maturely and almost positively, she responds to all of it. Her alienation is palpable and yet she wanders through the film with such strength of character it’s mesmerizing.

I still don’t think the film is assembled very well. If it weren’t for Miyazaki’s performance it would be difficult to engage. The lack of a traditional flow of ideas seems crass, too challenging for its own good. The exaggerated level of her abuse, coupled with her transcendent response to it, still makes me question the director's choice for the ending. It comes off like another slap in the face, a misguided attempt to inflict more pain in the viewer’s heart when something, anything, would have been more appropriate for the character. Ultimately, however, I guess it is the organic summation of the vision that the director set out to explore: bad things happen to good people and the alienation of youth is a train wreck of self-multiplying disasters that once begun is impossible to stop. It’s a shame that redemption is withheld from a character so deserving of it.

If you are a fan of Aoi Miyazaki you need to see this film just to see what she was capable of at age sixteen. It’s pretty powerful.


  1. I'm such a huge fan of Miyazaki's earlier work (Eureka, A Blue Automobile) and her performance here is one of my favourites. (And if I remember correctly, she was only 14 at the time of filming.) At such a young age, she was already so captivating an actress; when I think of youth alienation, I think of Miyazaki. It's a real shame, then, that her more recent works have left me largely unaffected.

    But onto the film, I think you've left out an important relationship -- that between Sachiko and Natsuko (Yu Aoi), that ever-optimistic classmate and pillar of strength.


    I thought the Sachiko/Natsuko friendship was the hightlight of the film. I loved how Natsuko waited outside Sachiko's home every morning without fail. I felt for her when she stepped aside, giving up her crush because she thought the relationship might offer Sachiko some stability. And my heart sank with her expression as she fumbled with her baton, preoccupied with the thought that she's lost her friend once and for all.

    As for the ending, I thought it was befitting, depressing as it was. I can relate to the desire of wanting Sachiko to find even a morsel of happiness, of hope, but at this point, when the train has already derailed, it would have come off as a cop-out. Besides, I kind of like the symbolism of Ogata and Sachiko missing each other by seconds. It seemed representative of their relationship. Even though he was her only confidant, their mode of communication (snail mail) meant that they were always too late with their words.

    And lastly, a big thanks for uploading that clip. It's one of my favourite scenes and I wish I had it handy at an earlier time!

  2. I think you're right about the Sachiko/Natsuko relationship and the point when Natsuko realizes she's lost Sachiko was almost as powerful as the end of the film. I wish, in looking for good things to say about this film that I would have mentioned it.

    I haven't thought of Miyazaki's career arc so much but as you mention it she was at a point the queen of independent disaffected youth. She's great. I recently watched Eureka, a film I can easily describe as a masterpiece, and Miyazaki, at like 12 years old, and without saying a word, is mesmerizing. A real talent.