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Harajuku (2018) | Film Review & Analysis

Updated: Sep 22

A Tale About Dreams of Harajuku & Japanese Escapism


Scene from the Norwegian film Harajuku (2018). It shows a teenage girl walking through Tokyo streets.
All images courtesy of Maipo Film

Director: Eirik Svensson

Cast: Ines Høysæter Asserson, Nicolai Cleve Broch, Ingrid Olava, Kjærsti Odden Skjeldal

Related Films: Gutten Er Sulten, Sonja, Gåten Ragnarok, Skam

Studio: Maipo Film

Year: 2018



Contents:

  1. Introducing Harajuku (the Movie)

  2. The Problem with Harajuku (the Place)

  3. Escaping Reality | The Plot in Harajuku

  4. Seeing Harajuku with Norwegian Eyes

  5. Harajuku Analysis by a Japanese Viewer

  6. Final Verdict for Harajuku



Tis the season to be jolly, when Vilde stumbles through Oslo streets. She was abandoned by her father, whose new life with a new wife was too much for her mother to handle.


Only hours ago, mom threw herself off the balcony. All that is left, are memories of anger, quarrels, and despair. The only thing keeping Vilde from going off the deep end is the dream of Harajuku.



Introducing Harajuku (the Movie)


Harajuku is a Norwegian film from 2018, directed by Eirik Svensson. It tells the story of the teenage girl Vilde, whose life is falling apart before her very eyes. In desperation, she decides to flee to a cotton candy cosplay paradise, half a world away.


Harajuku stars Ines Høysæter Asserson as Vilde, Nicolai Cleve Broch as her father, and Ingrid Olava as her father's new wife. The film won the Norwegian Amanda Awards for the best film editing, the best sound editing, and was nominated for nine prizes in total.


Harajuku also did a small festival run in Sweden and Spain, but did not get the attention it deserved. To be fair, how could international audiences know that the film before them was a rare piece of Norwegian cinematic innovation? They couldn’t, which is why we felt the need to enlighten you with this review.



The Problem with Harajuku (the Place)


Japan is known for its relentless work practices. People work around the clock, either in offices, in the service industry, or at home, to make the capitalist wheels turn. Therefore, it is not so strange that Japan also offers myriads of escapism opportunities, like anime, manga, cosplay, or Harajuku.


Harajuku is a dreamland. It is a magical place where kids come to express themselves and adults come to escape. It is real, but it’s not the real Japan, in the sense that most Japanese people think of Harajuku kids as freaks, outcasts, or losers. But to the outside world, it appears a utopia for alternative souls.


Well, it can be paradise, but only for a while, and only when you are aware of the fantasy of it all. Harajuku is a magical place, which fits this dark story well. The reality in Harajuku (the movie) is hard, but just like its namesake area in Tokyo, it draws you in with fascinating visuals and a mystical atmosphere.



Escaping Reality | The Plot in Harajuku


In essence, Harajuku is a story about broken families, escapism, and the human condition. It introduces Vilde and her single mother, who lives in a run-down suburb in Oslo. Their husband and father left them for another woman many years ago and is leading a new life with his new family.


It might not be the only factor, but Vilde’s mother is not coping well with the loss and the solitude. So, she decides to escape it all, leaving Vilde to fend for herself.


Vilde was already lashing out at society, when the news of her mother crushed her last specks of normalcy in life. Suddenly everything fell apart, including her dream of going to Harajuku. Instantly, she tries all ploys she can think of to raise cash for a plane ticket, but none of her schemes pan out.


Her final option, as much as she dislikes it, is to call up her dad. As it turns out, he has his own boatload of problems to deal with. His new life is far from bliss. His wife detests his past life and is dead set on making him sever past ties once and for all.


The day of reckoning has come. Vilde has no choice but to confront her dad, and he must choose between taking responsibility or give her up for good. All she wants, is to get enough cash to run away to Harajuku…

Ines Høysæter Asserson and Nicolai Cleve Broch in the movie Harajuku (2018).


Seeing Harajuku with Norwegian Eyes


Harajuku is a much-needed breath of fresh air in the Norwegian movie market. It is made «outside-the-box», in an industry that has been plagued by mediocre directing and pathetic acting since the dawn of Norwegian cinema.


Norwegian film has always been inferior to the moviemaking in our neighboring countries of Denmark and Sweden. Since the 2010s, however, things have been looking up in Norway.


Films like 90 Minutes, Oslo August 31st, and The King’s Choice rekindled my hope in Norwegian film, and Harajuku added perfectly to this list. Not only is it well-directed, casted, and acted, the cinematography is very exciting.


The cuts between Oslo and Harajuku are powerful juxtapositions that makes the escapism very believable. Likewise, the Oslo cityscape is painted with an interesting balance between Christmas bliss and tawdry teenage delinquency.


Harajuku is dark and depressing, which might sound heavy for the average viewer, but in fact, it is thoroughly entertaining and gripping throughout. Even though the subject matter is gloomy, the creative moviemaking is uplifting.


The sudden jump into an animated sequence, for instance, is both mesmerizing and a perfect example of the exciting film tendencies that are occurring in Norway at the moment.


If you ask me to recommend some Norwegian movies to foreign audiences, the only films that come to mind are I Am Dina (2002), the zombie-comedy Dead Snow (2009), the pitch-black drama 90 Minutes (2012), and now, Harajuku.



Harajuku Analysis by a Japanese Viewer


In February 2020, Harajuku was screened at Tokyo Northern Lights Festival in Tokyo, a festival dedicated to Nordic films. In the side streets of Shibuya, we went to see the film in a Japanese setting.


Seeing the Japanese audience’s reaction was interesting. They probably found different things amusing than the Norwegian makers of Harajuku, but aside from cultural difference in humor, everyone seemed to appreciate the film.


The following paragraphs are the thoughts of a Japanese viewer, based on her first impression of Harajuku:


It wasn't Harajuku she was longing for.

A concrete jungle drenched in vulgar neon lights. Even the vile and the grotesque seem so easily swallowed by the never-ending commotion of the metropolis. The unnatural mix of tradition and ultramodern has become a natural reflection of the Tokyo cityscape, a peaceful harmony in the midst of chaos.


Her desire for approval will never be fulfilled.

Dark winter nights with no end in sight; massive stone skyscrapers take your breath away; and the crushing weight of Christmas traditions.

When estranged from the world, her urge for attention got out of control.

A desperate dilemma: The «me» she wanted to see could never come to be.


Any stranger is treated with the utmost hospitality in Tokyo, as long as they are ready to consume. Outsiders, however, can never become one with society. Centuries of isolation left the land with skeptical eyes for all things unfamiliar. The very same people whose Utopia might be Scandinavia’s Oslo.


Utopia is an escape from depressions, to be free from fake smiles and false hospitality. If you came to see this film, longing for happy images of your own Utopia, you might be disappointed.


So, the same problems exist in Utopia…

It's not only our protagonist girl who suffers. Also, her mother, her father, his family; no-one ever catches the bluebird of happiness. Ironically, the leading girl has dyed her hair in the very same symbolizing color of the bluebird. As if to say, «it is just a dream that will not come true.» It’s like a metaphor for the delusion that plays repeatedly in her head.


The other characters come off just as self-absorbed as Vilde. Soon enough, we realize that their terrible misfortune is something grotesque that was created by their own spirits. It was not made by changes in their environment, like the mutant monster Godzilla. This beast lives within us all.



Final Verdict for Harajuku


Harajuku is an escape. It’s a place for kids to dive into fantasy worlds, but this film thoroughly shakes you back into focus. It shows us the danger of escaping from our sins, our reality, and our responsibilities.


(Spoiler)

Perhaps Vilde was genetically predisposed for escape, being that both her parents escaped. Her father escaped from one life to another, while her mother escaped from life all together. Vilde was the only one who broke the circle, which finally let some light through at the end of the tunnel.

(Spoiler end)


If anything, Harajuku tells us that no place will fix our problems. We are still the same no matter where we go, and we take our problems with us. The only way to freedom, is to confront our problems head-on.


As such, Harajuku is an eye-opener. It is an experience that satisfies movie buffs and art film lovers alike, since it delivers both striking visuals and strong storytelling.


So far, I have seen Harajuku three times, and it keeps on growing for each re-watch. That is more than I can say about pretty much any Norwegian film I have seen over the last decade. In other words, not a bad place to start if you want to give Norwegian film a try.


In fact, Harajuku might be the perfect escape from everyday stress and worries, with a perfect shake back to reality thereafter.


Movie poster for the Norwegian film «Harajuku» from 2018.
Harajuku - Who are there for you?

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