To the rest of the world Japan often seems as if it exists in the future, all gleaming city scapes and high-tech living, but Japanese cinema has a noticeable ambivalence about urbanisation. Where I Belong (しゃぼん玉, Shabondama) is the latest in a long series of films to lament the coldness and disconnection brokered by the anonymity of life in a metropolis and long for a return to a simpler time in which small communities supported each other in good times and bad, taking care to reinforce positive social values through mutual responsibility. Of course, such pictures of rural life tend towards the optimistic – these communities are accepting rather than judgemental and usually free from extreme hardships, but there is something universally comforting in the solidarity of community providing a home for those otherwise cast out.
Izumi (Kento Hayashi), a young man of indefinite age, was abandoned by his mother after his parents divorced and has lived the majority of his life on the streets. He gets by by bag snatching – mostly targeting the vulnerable, elderly and lone women. To make the job faster he carries a knife to cut the handles, never meaning to hurt anyone with it, but one night an attempted mugging in a rainy underpass ends in tragedy when his target is injured during the struggle. Getting out of town, Izumi finds himself kicked out of a truck in the middle of the mountains where he later finds an apparently abandoned scooter. Just as he’s about to continue his escape, an old woman cries out from the grassy verge. Izumi can’t quite bring himself to just ride off and helps the woman, Suma (Etsuko Ichihara), back to her home, after which he is rewarded by a hearty meal prepared by the warmhearted old ladies of the village and finds himself beginning to fight the urge to run in favour of hiding out in this strange little place where the people are unexpectedly warm.
Izumi’s not a bad guy, but he’s had a lot of bad luck. Let down so badly by family, his life has led him to believe all connections are necessarily suspect and it’s everyman for himself when it comes to surviving on the streets. He wanted to steal Suma’s scooter, but his better nature wouldn’t let him leave a little old lady bleeding on the side of the road where no one else might see her for days. The film’s central message is that kindness repays kindness, but kindness requires mutual trust – something of which the city robs its citizens though its persistent quality of anonymity and abnegation of one’s responsibility for others.
Describing himself as the soap bubble of the Japanese title, Izumi’s sense of loss and restlessness at having no particular place to return to is the root cause of his despair and lack of belief in a credible future. Through meeting Suma who repeatedly tells him that he is “good”, trusts him implicitly, and instils in him a belief in himself that had long been absent, Izumi is at last able to begin moving forward and imagine a future for himself with a place to call home. Taking to the woods with harsh but wise forager Shige (Katsuhiko Watabiki) and then helping the village prepare for a festival, Izumi begins to feel as if he can finally become a part of something bigger but equally that in order to do so he will have to make peace with his life in the city by submitting himself to its justice and paying his debt to society so that he can return and make a fresh start as a man who has finally found his place.
The first feature from TV director Shinji Azuma, Where I Belong is not solely a tale of the importance of community, but also of Japan’s changing social structure as small mountain towns find themselves devoid of youngsters leaving the elderly to fend for themselves. Izumi’s restored hopes are not so much to do with the goodness of country people, benefits of hard work, or the crisp mountain air, but simple human kindness and a consequence of the gradual awakening of his sense of self worth thanks to the often blind faith placed in him by others for nothing other than his kind heart.
Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.
- HOME – 19 February 2018
- Phoenix Leicester – 7 March 2018
- Storyhouse – 11 March 2018
- Depot – 13 March 2018
- Midlands Arts Centre – 17 March 2018
Original trailer (no subtitles)