“Am I too unhealthy to live in society?” asks the hero of Miwa Nishikawa’s Under the Open Sky (すばらしき世界, Subarashiki Sekai) of his doctor, but the only answer he gets is a wry chuckle and an exhortation not to be so “pessimistic”. Inspired by Ryuzo Saki’s 1993 novel Mibuncho, the first of Nishikawa’s six features to be adapted from secondary material is in many ways a typical Showa-era story, testifying to the fact that the world has not changed as much as we might have hoped in the intervening 30 years since Saki’s novel was published, but it’s also a lowkey condemnation of the quiet hypocrisies which continue to define our notions of civility in the story of a man who was perhaps too good to survive in our “society”.
Opening with bars and heavy snow, Nishikawa introduces us to Mikami (Koji Yakusho) as he nears release after serving 13 years in prison for killing a man in what is described by the authorities as a yakuza gang war, though Mikami is keen to point out that he’d already attempted to leave the yakuza by then and the killing was mere self defence. In any case when questioned by the officers about to release him, he admits no remorse over the man’s death only that he lost 13 years of his life over “that hoodlum”. In any case he’s thrown out into the cold, boarding a bus back into the city where he vows to go straight. Once there, however he discovers the outside world to be fairly inhospitable. Not only are the skills he learned in prison next to useless when it comes to finding employment in the contemporary economy, but he must also contend with societal prejudice and his own wounded pride.
Stepping for moment into the realms of the issue movie, Nishikawa explores the relative impossibility of re-entering mainstream society as someone who has been convicted of a crime. Having spent most of his adult life in and out of prison as a petty yakuza footsoldier, Mikami has little education and no marketable skills aside from his capacity for violence and the ability to drive, something of which he is now deprived because his licence expired while he was inside and to get it back he has to start from scratch by passing the new-style two-part test. Mikami’s life is indeed a typical post-war story, abandoned to an orphanage by his geisha mother from which he later escaped and ended up joining a gang in place of the family he never had. “Prison is the only place that won’t kick you out no matter how badly you behave” he later quips, accidentally laying bare his yearning for unconditional love found only shakily in yakuza brotherhood.
Yet that old-fashioned, post-war yakuza is an outdated institution, like Mikami himself a relic of the Showa era floundering in the late Heisei society in which gangsters wear sharp suits and have fancy offices, finding more sophisticated ways to make war with each other than open thuggery. Everybody wants out, Mikami later muses to himself, but it’s hard to fit in to society and those like him find themselves drawn back towards the vagaries of the yakuza life for all the dubious certainties it continues to offer them. His lawyer and guarantor Souji (Isao Hashizume) tells him that he needs to regain his love and trust of people, but that’s a tall order when it feels like no one loves you and they make a point of letting you know you’re not forgiven. Even a simple trip to the supermarket proves traumatic when the head of the local neighbourhood association who just happens to run it decides to pick him up for shoplifting just because he knows he’s an ex-con. Thankfully he later realises his mistake and is filled with remorse, moved by Mikami’s quiet dignity in asserting his innocence and right to shop as he pleases.
For all that, however, Mikami is a man of violence who has known no other way of life, taught that his only acceptable emotional release lies in pain and destruction. His violence is, however, for the sake of others not himself. He does not become violent with the store manager Mastumoto (Seiji Rokkaku) who later becomes his friend, but gleefully confronts two punks hassling a terrified salaryman and teaches them a minor lesson in the way only an old hand can. This other side to his otherwise childishly naive character shocks frightens Tsunoda (Taiga Nakano), a TV director Mikami had approached with the intention of being featured on his show in the hope of tracking down the mother who abandoned him, who engages in some armchair psychology to imply that the source of Mikami’s rage lies in his alienation as a rejected child. The irony is that Souji, his wife (Meiko Kaji), Matsumoto, and Tsunoda become Mikami’s new “family”, replacing that he’d looked for in the yakuza and providing a grounding in mainstream society that allows him to shed his anger, but the compromise they ask of him is in itself soul crushing in its implications to the extent that his complicity with it is no redemption but a moral failure.
If such is the price of civility, Mikami may have a point, perhaps it isn’t worth it. In the end, it is our world which fails to live up to his goodness, his violence a result of society’s continued indifference to human suffering. He is no more free outside the walls than in, constrained by an unforgiving emotional austerity that permits injustice in the name of harmony. If you can’t protect the ones who’ll save the flowers from the storm, then what is your freedom for? Subverting a well worn redemption narrative, Nishikawa finds a wealth of kindness in a broken world, but suggests it’s not enough save us until the world itself is redeemed.
Under the Open Sky streams in California until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.
Teaser trailer (English subtitles)