Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 17, 2021 10:39 am 
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Saga of an ex-con who tries to go straight

For her prisoner's tale director Miwa Nishikawa, a longtime associate of Hirakasu Koreeda, departed from her practice and adapted someone else's text, the 1993 Naoki-prizewinning novel Mibuncho (Identity Book) by Ryozo Saki. A formidable choice: the novelist's Vengeance Is Mine became Imamura's masterpiece. (Saki acknowledged the influence on his work of Truman Capote's "non-fiction novel" form, and this new movie teams with material.) Another valuable asset, by a good margin the most valuable, was the choice of the great Koji Yakusho to play the lead. The performance has won prizes and been called his career best. This film has much to teach us. But for all that, it seems somehow to lack a center and to be marred by excesses, too much detail, too little structure, moments of sentimentality, and a finale that gives way to melodrama. It's always a vivid, memorable film, one that takes us into a weary, suffering life as vividly as Bresson. But artistically it lacks finesse. That doesn't keep it, though, from being memorable.

What we learn are the specific details of something we already know: rehabilitation ain't easy, and assimilation is well-nigh impossible, especially in conformist, judgmental, legally rigorous Japan. The prisoner, Masao Mikami (Yakusho), has just served thirteen years for murder. He goose-steps and shouts out replies to officials obediently. He chooses to discard an expensive watch among his stored belongings that has gotten rusty. He mumbles "Screw you" and gets on the bus. He tells himself this time he will go straight.

As time goes on we learn that he was a driver for the yakuza (not strictly a member), that he was abandoned to an orphanage at age four by his geisha mother. His involvement in crime started early and he has spent 28 years in prison (nearly half his life). He also has a violent temper, and high blood pressure - a dangerous combination.

Once he's moved into a small flat, which he keeps very neat, Mikami tries to embark on a straight life. It doesn't work well. To renew his long-expired driver's license he must take lessons, and perhaps strangely, given his former job, he's terrible at driving. There are barriers at every step. The society does not want convicted felons. He has learned to be skillful at sewing leather in prison, but if that's where he learned it, a firm won't hire him. Identity Book, the name of Ryozo Saki's novel, refers to a peculiar Japanese institution, a collection of complete details about a prisoner that becomes available to people on the outside, which goes far toward making "a clean slate" impossible.

Mikami is surrounded by people he did not know who want to help him and several of whom become his friend. Souji (Isao Hashizune) is a lawyer who likes to help former prisoners, and he and his wife spend time with him early on. Tsunoda (Taiga Nakano) and his producer Yoshiawa (Misami Nagasawa), are TV people who film Mikami, thinking to make a show. They promise to help him find his mother, and this becomes a sustaining dream, a hope. A regular on the scene is the welfare officer Iguchi (Yukiya Kitamura), who is humbled by Mikami's rejection of handouts. Nearly as important as Tsunoda, who after being terrified by Mikami, begins to love him, is a local supermarket manager, Matsumoto (Seiji Rokkaku), who atones for wrongly accusing Mikami of shoplifting by giving him gifts and becoming a friend and advisor.

Mikami was in prison for killing a yakuza man who was menacing him and his wife with a sword. The film goes into too much detail about this, and introduces it in a gratuitous manner, even adding a courtroom scene; but what we learn is that it could have been considered justifiable homicide. Mikami is a man of violence and anger, and the many times he stabbed the assailant led to the murder charge and conviction. His violence is often in a good cause. Such is the case when he is with Tsunoda and his partner Yoshiawa and attacks two young punks bullying a helpless person. Tsunoda films this eagerly: a great scene for the series! But then Mikami becomes so violent it terrifies Tsunoda and he runs away. Yoshiawa chases and mocks him as a coward. She's finished with him, and apparently the filming for TV is over, and Tsunoda, estranged from Yoshiawa, begins following Mikami alone, without a camera, focusing on his original plan of writing a novel.

There is much more that will happen, including a vivid return to Mikami's hometown, Kyushu, to see his old yakuza buddy, Shimoinaba (Hakuryû), and his wife Masuko (Midoriko Kimura) and, on the way a very kind and lovely sex worker. As David Ehrlich says in his somewhat cruel IndieWire review, Koji Yakusho "knocks every scene" he's given to play in this film "out of the park," but one may indeed wonder if after a while "the movie around him" may begin "to feel like batting practice." (But see also Maggie Lee's extremely favorable Variety review, which also feels valid.)

As I watched Under the Open Sky (which fits the final shot of the film; but the Japanese title is the ironic one, "Wonderful World") in the back of my mind I compared it with 26-year-old Oudai Kojima's debut feature, Joint, another film in this year's NYAFF about an ex-con with yakuza connections finding his way on the outside. I was thinking not about Joint's conventional (but very contemporary) yakuza details, but about how the protagonist, a younger man, sets himself up after prison by working for two years far from Tokyo in construction and saving up enough money to set himself up in business. It's hard, and he only did two years in prison, but relatively, it goes so much easier - because he is not trying to go straight - quite. What emerges from Under the Open Sky - in fact it is repeated to us explicitly more than once (another weakness of the film that it spells everything out so much) - is that society pushes criminals to stay criminals, in Japan, anyway. Isn't that the life they have chosen?

Under the Open Sky すばらしき世界 (Subarashiki Sekai, "Wonderful World"), 126 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 10, 2020; it was also shown Oct. 23, 2020 at San Diego Asian Film Festival;at Chicago Oct. 2020 Koji Yakusho received the best actor award; Nov. 25, 2020 at Warsaw (Five Flavors); Dec. 5, Macao; Japan theatraical release Feb. 11, 2021; festivals in 2021 at Seattle, Jeonju, San Francisco, Barcelona, Tokyo IFF (internet), Frankfurt, Toronto Japanese Fest. (internet) Jun., Shanghai (Jun.), Pyeongchang (Jun.), Montreal (Fantasia, Aug.), and it was screened for this review as part of the 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22).

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