Today I want to talk about a little film called Avatar. No, not the bloated CGI-laden thinly-veiled sci-fi retelling of Disney’s Pocahontas directed by James Cameron Avatar, I’m talking about the 2011 J-Horror movie directed by Atsushi Wada. Sure, it’s the only Japanese horror film with the title but unfortunately, the general headspace for most film fans is going to be consumed with the phenomenon that predates this by two years. Step beyond the world of film and you’ve got the global craze that is the Avatar: The Last Airbender franchise as well. It’s safe to say that “Avatar” as a title shares a lot of headspace across the world. That’s perhaps the biggest problem with this film.
While the title is definitely chosen with purpose and has a strong meaning to the themes at play in this film, in a sense, it has also condemned the movie to go unnoticed and exist in obscurity to wider audiences. This is a shame because Wada’s Avatar is an incredibly fun slice of J-Horror that was ahead of its time hitting on some themes that have only become more relevant some ten years later. The film is based on a novel by Yusuke Yamada who is no stranger to these types of stories. Yamada is also responsible for writing Riaru Onigokko which has spawned the film series The Chasing World and a completely wild adaptation by Sion Sono as Tag (2015).
The story follows Michiko Abukumagawa (Ai Hashimoto), an unfortunate high school girl drowning in the oppressive nature of the unrestrained bullying going on within her class. Much of this bullying is orchestrated by the clear queen of the classroom Taeko Awano (Rikako Sakata). Fans of the Kamen Rider franchise will recognize Sakata from 2011’s Kamen Rider Fourze, where she played Miu Kazashiro, another similar “Queen of the School” type but far more benevolent than her darker turn here. It’s particularly interesting to see her play two very similar yet entirely unique roles within the same year.
Michiko and Taeko also share a rather grim history with one another. As we are shown during the film opening, Michiko was just ten years old when her father died in a tragic accident. With paramedics on the way to help and potentially prevent his death, the ambulance gets stuck going down a narrow street due to a random car that has backed out a driveway and then been abandoned. As the paramedics scramble to find the owner and get the car clear, Michiko realizes that the car belongs to Taeko’s father. In fact, Taeko had snuck and orchestrated this whole scenario by lifting her father’s car keys while he was drunk. We get the first glimpse of her odd visual tic where she licks her lips in an odd enjoyment of the despair she has caused. And you can’t sell this moment short either. As a ten-year-old kid, Taeko effectively kills Michiko’s father. It’s true that the situation began as an accident, but she chooses to prevent his one chance at any kind of help and then relishes in the pain it causes Michiko.
Much of the bullying in the film has this sort of escalated over-the-top tone to it. Fellow classmate Makoto Saionji (Nako Mizusawa) gets it even worse than Michiko for daring to argue with and defy Taeko. Early in the film, we see her subjected to getting her face dunked in a bucket of water until she can drink it all. Later, she gets fabric stretched around her neck and across the room between desks so that she can be choked at the whim of Taeko’s crew. It might stretch belief, a bit, particularly since their teacher Mizokuchi (Toranosuke Kato) turns a blind eye to it all happening, but I found these scenes to be particularly effective.
There is a certain style found in a lot of Japanese cinema that many often just compare to trying to be like an anime or manga. Moments where the situation or the characters are exaggerated beyond belief creating a sort of hyper-reality. I find these moments to work so well because in doing this, what is actually happening is that we as viewers are being made to feel the extreme emotions of the scene. In a sense, maybe the bullying we see isn’t what is really happening (it’s certainly not what would happen in real life), but we get how devastating and life-ending it feels to a high school girl in that situation.
Taeko’s fame and popularity centers around a mobile phone game entitled “AvaQ” which exists as part social network site and part dress-up doll. When joining, users create a virtual avatar to represent themselves and can then collect various clothing and accessories to dress up their character. Gold can be earned to purchase these or spent in gacha style lotteries to win rare items and of course real money can be used to quickly obtain more gold as well. It’s pretty standard fare for mobile games of its time.
As a birthday present, Michiko receives her first cell phone from her Mom and at Taeko’s insistence gets roped into joining AvaQ; predominantly just as a pretext to bully her further. While at first she is generally uninterested, Michiko starts to get drawn to the appeal of the game and this is only further exacerbated after receiving compliments from classmates upon obtaining some rare items and having a positive encounter with her crush Hitoshi Yamanouchi (Kazuma Sano). Soon Michiko feels that addictive aura that surrounds these types of games as she begins asking others to help her by using her referral link so she can obtain more gold. There’s even a very somber scene where for a moment Michiko considers selling the watch left behind by her father before being confronted about it by her mother.
It all might seem a little banal outside of the extreme moments of bullying. I am the type of person where once I start a movie I generally sit along for the ride no matter what because I believe that you can get something even out of a bad film. The worst sin a film can commit is being utterly boring and I am sure my tolerance is a lot greater than most. That said, the first half of this film is much more of a high school drama than a horror film. That’s not to say it is poorly done. Michiko is a very relatable character and you truly feel for her and the bullying she has to endure. However, if you give up and bail during this segment then you’re missing the absolutely bonkers twist in direction and all the gold star moments to come because we shift gears and Avatar becomes an over-the-top horror story about a cult.
Michiko suffers more bullying at the hands of Taeko and at her lowest moment she is finally approached by Saionji. The two bond a bit over their shared status as punching bags, but Saionji has had enough making plans to dethrone and embarrass Taeko through her obsession with AvaQ using Michiko as the instrument of her destruction. Together, this unlikely duo starts walking down a dark road seeking revenge and it begins with acquiring the “war funds” needed to make headway in AvaQ. All the rarest items come from the lottery rolls which cost gold. The fastest way to get a lot of gold is to simply buy it with real money.
So, we get several tense and awkward scenes where Michiko takes part in a con heading to love hotels with salarymen and then swiping their wallets and running off before anything can happen. That cash immediately gets dropped at the nearest convenience store into gold for AvaQ. It’s not dwelled on for long, but given the history of compensated dating (enjo kosai) in Japan, it was interesting to see this angle in the film. Soon, Michiko is winning all the rarest clothing in the game sheerly by funnelling in so much gold. People begin to praise her avatar and start being kinder to her much to Taeko’s chagrin.
One might think the story could stop there, but Michiko makes a decision that rockets the film into insanity: she decides to draft her growing avatar circle of friends into a cult. The next thing you know, there is a small armada of girls parading around in school uniforms while wearing gas masks. Michiko and Saionji are on a stage addressing their followers like some military operation is underway. The group becomes a well-oiled machine funnelling money and in-game items to Michiko so she can continue to fuel her success with AvaQ. Slowly, the entire school gets engulfed by Michiko’s aura and leaving Taeko the odd one out for the first time in her life.
Using the cult, the duo starts to realize their vengeance. Taeko winds up abducted, beaten, and disgraced from showing up at school. She attempts to fight back through their teacher and by seducing the guy Michiko had some interest in, but most of this backfires. Michiko even comes for Taeko’s father creating a situation where he is dying and needs help, but the paramedics are unable to reach him in a sadistically cruel moment calling back to their childhood. We learn some dark secrets about Mizokuchi and how he’s been sleeping with students, notably Taeko which explains much of his lack of concern for her bullying. The teacher winds up slaughtered at the hands of Michiko’s followers and while we should feel bad it’s really hard when so many of their victims have spent most of the film showing us just how terrible they are as people.
This segment also gives way to probably my only true criticism of the film. As part of their escalating plans, Michiko uses the money funneling in to seek plastic surgery so that her beauty can match that of her avatar. It’s an effective scene for the story because it says a lot about perceived beauty, but the execution is problematic. A lot of this is simply due to the fact that Ai Hashimoto is quite simply gorgeous. To make us believe the persona of Michiko as an unliked and bullied school girl she is presented with loose-fitting clothes, disheveled hair, a mole drawn on with makeup and glasses. She’s already beautiful even in this state. The plastic surgeon they seek out has the easiest job in the world because what he does amounts to them styling her hair, giving her more fitting clothes, losing the glasses, and wiping off the makeup. It just doesn’t work and it’s a little laughable in the end. However, when everything else in the film lands so well I think this is a pretty forgivable issue.
I don’t want to spoil the final act too much because it goes in a very interesting direction and wraps up with one of the most insane gore gags I’ve seen in this style of more mainstream J-Horror fare. Taeko finally enacts a plan of revenge to take down Michiko and while there are some casualties along the way, in the end, Michiko’s victory is absolute. Some of the losses along the way hurt more than others. Michiko’s mother ends up disowning her and starts treating her like a stranger after becoming disgusted with her actions. It hurts to see how little this impacts Michiko seemingly because in her eyes she has won. Not only have all the injustices been righted, but she has become the number one avatar on AvaQ and effectively rules the school.
I do want to talk about the stinger in the last moments, however, because this is where some damn clever bite gets added to the film theme. With her victory achieved, Michiko’s cult seems poised to continue to grow until it perhaps dominates all of Japan. When she returns to school the next day she finds that everything has changed. Michiko is no longer calling the shots and everyone is treating her normally. What suddenly changed? It turns out the developers of AvaQ have launched a brand new game entitled “Lucky Luck” which functions mostly the same but has new clothing and is branded such that even the least rare item in the new game is harder to obtain than the rarest of AvaQ. Everyone has flooded to the new game and now nobody cares about AvaQ at all. Michiko’s followers have flocked to another girl in the school who already has quite the head start in Lucky Luck.
You can see the dread and despair that overcomes Michiko at this moment. Yet, this isn’t the sort of Twilight Zone-style gotcha moment we might expect where she learns her lesson. No, instead Michiko chooses to double down on the situation, plunging herself into a sort of never-ending hell vowing to do whatever it takes to climb the ladder all over again in this new game and reobtain her status. It’s a crushing ending that really hits hard without a single drop of blood being spilled. In the end, Avatar leaves us with a bleak outlook on a world where nobody is innocent and there are no easy answers.
Sadly, this appears to be the last film that Wada has worked on and that’s a real shame. Avatar is a very well-crafted film and there is a clear show of talent on display that could easily continue to shine through more features in this vein. J-Horror has long leaned into adapting the potential horrors to be found with the proliferation of technology and our deepening embrace of it in our daily lives. Wada is able to balance this expertly while still tackling more traditional social issues such as bullying.
While the film was certainly on point at the time of its release, today its themes have only become all the more relevant. Consider the proliferation of “gacha” style mobile games, like Fate Grand/Order, where players casually drop hundreds of dollars trying to obtain their favorite character. Take that one step further with even more predatory competitive style games like Clash of Clans where you can quite literally pay to win through purchasing progression faster than a normal player. Look at the way these sorts of addictive elements have been snuck into traditional video games by greedy developers as a core mechanic like loot boxes. Think about the trends of Twitch streamers as they rush from one “Early Access” flavor of the month game to the next constantly seeking relevance and ways to grow their viewer base.
That’s not to condemn all these things. Plenty of people enjoy gacha games as free-to-play players and simply appreciate the mechanics or aesthetics with no concern. Many see streaming video games as a simple hobby for their own appreciation and nothing more. What Avatar truly warns us about is the dangers of attaching our own happiness and sense of self-worth to these things. To do so, like Michiko, offers a grim purgatory of shallow victories offering immediate comfort but neve quite filling the hole in one’s heart and creating an endless pursuit for more.
Wada’s Avatar is an incredibly fun bit of J-Horror with a hard-hitting message about the ephemeral nature of fame and happiness in the digital world and the danger of attaching our mental well-being to such fleeting success. Often overlooked and crowded for recognition over its title, this is one film that deserves way more love and attention than it has received.
Dustin is a potentially overqualified office worker who has a lifelong love and fascination with Japan and all things Horror. With a bachelor’s in English Literature and a master’s in Library Science, he devotes way too much time to researching and thinking critically about the media he enjoys. When not celebrating trashy horror films, anime, and idol music, he can be found raving about all things genre cinema as a co-host on Genre Exposure: A Film Podcast or indulging a passion for storytelling through tabletop roleplaying games.