Where I Belong (しゃぼん玉, Shinji Azuma, 2017)

Where I Belong PosterTo 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.

Screening again:

  • 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)

Gentle 12 (12人の優しい日本人, Shun Nakahara, 1991)

161_img_1_oAs you might be able to tell from its title, Gentle 12 (12人の優しい日本人, Juninin no Yasashii Nihonjin) is a loose Japanese parody of the stage play 12 Angry Men notably filmed by Sidney Lumet back in 1957. The Japanese title literally translates as “12 Kindly Japanese Guys” and the film takes the same premise of twelve jurors debating the verdict in a murder case which was previously thought fairly straightforward. This time our jury is a little more balanced as it’s not just guys in the room and even the men are of a more diverse background.

In contrast to the American version, each of our twelve jurors is immediately inclined to acquit and some of them are even walking out the door before one juror, Juror no. 2, raises an objection. He thinks the defendant may be guilty and they should at least talk about it a little more. Irritated, the jurors walk back into the room and enquire why he’s had this sudden change of heart. They will, of course, be entitled to some refreshments now, so what’s the harm in hanging round to talk things through. Eventually people start to switch sides, some in confusion or just wanting to get it over with, but gradually each is exposed as having a personal reason for feeling the way they do that has relatively little to do with the facts of the case.

In contrast to the original stage play, the first instinct of the Japanese jurors is to acquit. No one wants to believe the defendant, who is the mother of a young child accused of pushing her violent ex-husband into the path of an oncoming truck, could have wilfully planned such an outrageous crime in advance. Whatever the facts are, she has clearly suffered enough and her child certainly doesn’t deserve to be orphaned through having its mother taken away by over zealous seekers of “justice”. Nevertheless Juror no.2 doesn’t believe her story and thinks there’s at least the possibility that she pushed him deliberately if not having engineered the entire situation in someway.

As in the American version, they proceed to debate the facts of the case in detail but while some change sides after thinking over the arguments, others are rigidly committed to their positions. Of those in the not guilty camp, some of them can’t quite articulate their reasoning beyond “it’s just a feeling” which proves particularly infuriating to Juror No. 2. The US version placed more emphasis on societal prejudices with personal ones largely backing them up – i.e. they took against the defendant in that case because he was a poor boy from the slums so in their middle class, majority culture minds it was natural that he was guilty. Here, there’s a great deal of sympathy for the defendant who seems to have experienced a lot of misfortune but continues to try and do the best for her young son.

Even so, some take against her because she reminds them of past misfortune of their own, or take against the victim because even as a thoroughly unpleasant man he’d managed to attract himself a pretty wife and son only to misuse and abandon them. Some believe themselves to be excellent judges of character or to be good at spotting a liar only to have their opinions about themselves undermined when scrutinised. The revelations here are personal rather than societal, but the central fact remains that you can’t really ever know or prove what happened and even having witnessed something with your own eyes doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve totally understood the situation fully. Much of the juror’s deliberations consist of creating a narrative out of scattered facts and exercises in supposition. In the end, it more or less comes down to gut feeling anyway.

Originating as a stage play and scripted by Japanese comedy master Koki Mitani, Gentle 12 has its moments of humour and never really takes itself too seriously. What else could you say about a case which seems to hinge on the smallest size of pizza available from a delivery company and how someone might say the words “ginger ale” when really, really angry. The “kindly” jurors also have a wonderful tendency towards tolerance or towards restrained anger that sees them getting quite annoyed whilst trying not to lose their tempers in exasperation or just calmly restating their arguments (or lack thereof) and infuriating everyone else in the process. Neatly filmed by Shun Nakahara, Gentle 12 might not have the same level of cultural bite as its original work suggests but it does prove an enjoyably absurd confined space drama which offers a few cultural revelations of its own.