When you think of the American military presence in Japan, your mind naturally turns to Okinawa but the largest mainland US base is actually located not so far from Tokyo in a small Japanese town called Yamato which is also the ancient name for the modern-day country. The US has been a constant presence since the end of the second world war prompting resistance of varying degrees from both left and right either in resentment at perceived complicity in American foreign policy, or the desire to reform the pacifist constitution and rebuild an independent army capable of defending Japan alone. Daisuke Miyazaki’s second feature, Yamato (California) (大和（カリフォルニア) dramatises this long-standing issue through exploring the life of hip-hop enthusiast and Yamato resident Sakura (Hanae Kan) who idolises an art form born of political oppression in a country which she also feels oppresses her as a Japanese citizen living on the other side of the fence from land which technically still belongs to the US government.
As the camera pans around a ruined landscape which turns out to be a junkyard, it eventually finds Sakura as she sits alone atop a pile of rubbish rapping about her existential misery, the hopelessness of her life, and her constant anxiety. Sakura has left high school but has no hopes, aspirations or plan. She works part-time at the eel restaurant owned by a family friend but he rarely has enough custom to need her help. Still living at home with her single mother (Reiko Kataoka) and older brother Kenzo in a cramped apartment where space is divided by a series of hanging sheets, Sakura is put out to learn that the half-Japanese daughter of her mother’s American G.I. boyfriend will be coming to stay. When Rei (Nina Endo) finally arrives, Sakura makes a point of ignoring her but the two eventually bond over a shared love of hip-hop and an awkward sense of recognition.
Tellingly, Rei’s (late) mother was from Okinawa – another reminder of the wider American presence, but her long absent father, Abby Goldman, is as distant a protector as America itself. Communicating only through handwritten letters, Abby is neither seen or heard but somehow believed in like an invisible god. Strangely, Rei asks Sakura what her father was like as if she’d never met him only for Sakura to awkwardly answer that he was somewhere between a bother, a friend, and a father but that she’s also grateful to him for introducing her to her beloved hip hop. Later she takes her mother to task on this same issue, Abby hasn’t visited in years and doesn’t even provide for them anymore yet he dispatches the daughter he rarely sees himself for them to care for instead. Abby, like America, offers little and takes much, at least in Sakura’s increasingly hotheaded assessment.
Sakura is quite clearly in a state of depression. Sullen and angry, she lashes out at all around her but is mostly at war with herself and understandably anxious about her future. Her mother and brother both understand this about her and are patient and understanding, naturally cheerful people faced with adversity. With no work to go to and the prospect of finding any slim, Sakura spends her time perfecting her rap technique and hanging out alone in an abandoned trailer in the woods. Despite dressing in the accepted rapper style of loose grey tracksuit bottoms and a hoodie Sakura is a poor fit for the world she’s chosen. Lyrical writing more suited to performance poetry or, as she later puts it, the avant-garde, doesn’t gel with the aggressive, mostly male posturing she sees from her peers yet Sakura is determined to make her way into this arena as a means of self-expression rather than any deluded idea of fame and fortune.
Rei, her American friend, eventually sparks an epiphany following a fiery argument during which she accuses Sakura of being nothing more than an American copycat, adopting a foreign art form to mask an insecurity in her own fragile identity. Rei, trying to get through to her knew friend, has pushed too deep and hit all the wrong nerves leading to a surreal sequence which finally sets Sakura off on a voyage of self discovery and results in a concerted vow of “independence” but also of rejoining the world, accepting others rather than refusing to engage, and stepping forward together but on an equal footing with no leaders and no followers.
Miyazaki’s balanced view does not shy away from the less pleasant aspects of his own society from the protest group which wanders through the frame carrying banners calling for the immediate expulsion of migrants from Asia, to a group of yankees throwing rocks at the homeless, and Kenzo’s straightforward remark that he’s only interested in meeting Rei if she’s pretty – according to him mixed-race Japanese girls often aren’t. Grey mixes with green as brutalist shopping malls break through the vegetation leaving even an errant pagoda entirely intact in the central square. Like Sakura’s own soul this is a land of contradictions and uneasy cross-pollinations but it doesn’t need to be as defeatist and unimaginative as a dated shopping mall, wasei hip-hop just might be the next big thing.
Yamato (California) was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.
Original trailer (dialogue free)