Under the Open Sky (すばらしき世界, Miwa Nishikawa, 2020)

“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)

Fukushima 50 (フクシマ50, Setsuro Wakamatsu, 2020)

The “Fukushima 50” (フクシマ50), as the film points out, was a term coined by the international media to refer to the men and women who stayed behind to deal with the unfolding nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Loosely inspired by Ryusho Kadota’s non-fiction book On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi which featured extensive interviews with those connected to the incident, Setsuro Wakamatsu’s high production value film adaptation arrived to mark the ninth anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami which occurred on 11th March, 2011 and closes with a poignant callback to the plant’s role in Japan’s post-war reconstruction as the nation once again prepares to host the (now postponed) Olympics with a torch relay beginning at Fukushima as a beacon of hope as the country continues to rebuild in the wake of the disaster. 

Though inspired by real events Wakamatsu’s dramatisation is heavily fictionalised and while surprisingly frank for a mainstream film in its criticism of the official reaction to the disaster, is also quietly nationalistic while doing its best to pay tribute to the selfless sacrifice of the plant workers who stayed behind to do what they could many of whom had little expectation of surviving. Chief among them would be Izaki (Koichi Sato), an imperfect family man and veteran section chief, and the plant’s superintendent Yoshida (Ken Watanabe) who are both local men and old friends. Local, it seems, is later key with multiple appeals to the furusato spirit as each is at pains to point out that they stay not only to prevent a catastrophic meltdown that would leave most of central Honshu including Tokyo uninhabitable, but because they feel a greater duty to protect their hometown and the people in it. 

Meanwhile, they find themselves burdened rather than assisted by official support as government bodies’ political decision making undermines their attempts to avert disaster while the boardroom of TEPCO who operate the plant reacts with business concerns in mind. A few hours in the prime minister (Shiro Sano) decides to make a visit, in political terms he can’t not national leaders who don’t visit sites of crisis are never forgiven, but his presence actively hinders the recovery efforts. Referred to only as the PM, Wakamatsu’s film presents the man leading the nation as an ignorant bully overly obsessed with his personal image. He has little understanding of nuclear matters or the implications of the disaster, refuses to abide by the regular safety procedures required at the plant, and mostly governs through shouting. Beginning to lose his temper, Yoshida does his best to remain calm but resents the constant interference from those sitting in their offices far away from immediate danger while he does his best to contend with the increasingly adverse conditions on the ground, mindful of his responsibilities firstly to his employees and secondly to those living in the immediate vicinity of the plant who will be most at risk when measures taken to prevent meltdown will lead to an inevitable radiation leak. 

Yoshida’s hero moment comes when he ignores a direct order from the government to stop using seawater to cool the reactors, knowing that he has no other remaining options. Meanwhile, the government refuse offers of help from the Americans, who eventually make a strangely heroic arrival with Operation Tomodachi, discussing plans to move their families to safety while their commander reflects on his post-war childhood on a military base near the site of the nuclear plant. Japan’s SDF also gets an especial nod, granted permission to leave by Yoshida who is beginning to think he’s running out of time but vowing to stay and do their duty in protecting civilians in need. 

In essence, the drama lies in how they coped rather than the various ways in which they didn’t. The conclusion is that the existence of the plant was in itself hubristic, they are paying the price for “underestimating the power of nature” in failing to calculate that such a devastating tsunami was possible. They thought they were safe, but they weren’t. Perhaps uncomfortably, Wakamatsu mimics the imagery of the atomic bomb to imagine a nuclear fallout in Tokyo, harking back to ironic signage which simultaneously declares that the energy of the future is atomic while the plant workers reflect on the sense of wonder they felt as young people blinded by science back in the more hopeful ‘70s as the nation pushed its way towards economic prosperity. Frank for a mainstream film but then again perhaps not frank enough, Fukushima 50 is both an urgent anti-nuclear plea and an earnest thank you letter to those who stayed when all looked hopeless, suggesting that if the sakura still bloom in Fukushima it is because of the sacrifices they made.


Fukushima 50 is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Beautiful World (任侠ヘルパー, Hiroshi Nishitani, 2012)

ninkyo helperIn old yakuza lore, the “ninkyo” way, the outlaw stands as guardian to the people. Defend the weak, crush the strong. Of course, these are just words and in truth most yakuza’s aims are focussed in quite a different direction and no longer extend to protecting the peasantry from bandits or overbearing feudal lords (quite the reverse, in fact). However, some idealistic young men nevertheless end up joining the yakuza ranks in the mistaken belief that they’re somehow going to be able to help people, however wrongheaded and naive that might be.

The hero of Hiroshi Nishitani’s Beautiful World (任侠ヘルパー, Ninkyo Helper) is just one of these world weary idealists turned cynics. We find him working a low rent convenience store job where he fills the shop with the kind of intensity that only a disappointed former yakuza can generate. Hikoichi (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) was trying to make a go of things in the regular world, but when a sad little old man comes in with armed robbery on his to do list, Hikoichi shows his yakuza stripes by easily beating him down in front of his stunned colleague.

This might have earned him some brownie points at work, but overcome by pity for this pathetic old man reduced to robbing corner shops for petty change, he gives him the cash and tells him to run. The police soon turn up and arrest them both – during the robbery Hikochi’s colourful tattoos were caught on security camera and no one wants a yakuza working here, even if he did volunteer to pay back the tiny sum of money the old guy got from his own wages.

Meeting up in prison, Hikoichi and the armed robber eventually become friends and after his release, Hikoichi ends up in the old guy’s home town where he joins his former clan as an enforcer. Extremely bitter by this point, Hikoichi has decided to play the modern yakuza game to the max so when he finds out his assignment is running a dodgy “care” home which gets its residents by extorting old people through outrageous loans which send them bankrupt, he only briefly pauses.

The idea of a yakuza running a care home is a strange one. The Uminoneko residential care facility is far from what one would want from a old people’s home – there are no doctors, or even carers, the entire home is run by one nurse, herself an elderly woman who got her nurse’s certification and eldercare qualifications back in 1943!

With a rapidly ageing population, eldercare is a big topic in Japan as the birth rate has progressively fallen while lifespans have increased leaving many older people without family to look after them. With the nature of the family unit also changing, it’s become much harder to care for elderly relatives at home especially if they need around the clock attention. There are simply not enough facilities available to cope with the increasing needs of the older generation leaving families struggling to cope and social services overwhelmed. It’s not surprising that the yakuza have picked up on this as a growth area.

When Hikoichi arrives at the Uminoneko facility, which is just really a prefab shed with some futons in it, he finds a hellish place filled with unstimulated old people left on their beds to die. The place is filthy, and about the only attention the guests receive is the occasional offering of food to keep them alive so that the clan can keep claiming their pensions and welfare payments. Though Hikoichi goes along with this to begin with, it’s not long before his idealism rears its ugly head and he hits on the idea of reforming Uminoneko by turning it into a kind of old person’s commune in which the residents themselves will help out with the running of the place. What was a sad and gloomy prison of exploitation suddenly transforms as the older generation rediscover a place that they can belong, working together to build their own community. However, this of course means less money for the clan and more trouble for Hikoichi.

The clan aren’t his only problems as the town also has a progressive mayor who made a commitment to wipe out organised crime and turn the area into a tourist hotspot with a special focus on caring for the older generation. Teruo (Teruyuki Kagawa) has is own stuff going on which again causes a problem for Hikioichi as he also has a long standing crush on the older yakuza’s daughter, now a single mother with two young children and a mother of her own with senile dementia who needs expensive medical care. Yoko (Narumi Yasuda) has a grudge against yakuza after enduring decades of stigma and eventual abandonment by her father but is willing to deal with them if it will enable her to help her mother. Predictably she begins to develop a better understanding of her father as she bonds with Hikochi and warms to his noble tough guy ways.

Directed by Hiroshi Nishitani and inspired by a TV show (though functioning as a standalone movie), Beautiful World is a finely plotted drama which explores both the roles of the ageing population and eldercare explosion in Japan, and the conflicting role of the yakuza who seek to exploit those who are arguably the weakest in society. Hikoichi makes for a very Takakura-like, brooding presence as his innate idealism and desire to help those around him conflict with his experiences as a yakuza which teach him to distrust everyone and expect betrayal and exploitation at every turn. Resolving in an unconventional and unexpected way, this otherwise mainstream, if  beautifully photographed, drama develops into one of the more interesting character driven pieces of recent times.


Unsubbed trailer: