Small-town Japan is no Promised Land in Takahisa Zeze’s adaptation of a pair of short stories by mystery writer Shuichi Yoshida. Japanese cinema has often had an ambivalent relationship with the rapidly depopulating countryside, split between a sickly furusato idealisation of rural life as somehow purer than its urban counterpart and lampooning city slickers tired of that same sense of urban ennui but discovering that the traditional way of life is often hard especially when you don’t know how to do it and have no friends in communities which can often seem hostile to newcomers.
What newcomers to the small town at the centre of The Promised Land (楽園, Rakuen) discover is latent racism, mutual suspicion, and toxic local politics which bends towards the feudal as those now old go to great lengths to cling on to their power. Hardly a rural idyll but a space of atavistic decay. The rot begins 12 years prior to the main action when a little girl, Aika, doesn’t come home for tea after playing with a friend. A search of the local area is organised, but only her little red school bag is found. 12 years later the other girl, Tsugumi (Hana Sugisaki), is consumed by a sense of survivor’s guilt feeling as if she is underserving of happiness in the knowledge that if she had only taken a different path that day Aika might not have disappeared. When another girl goes missing, suspicion falls on a wounded young man, Takeshi (Go Ayano), who speaks little and is intensely traumatised by his childhood experiences of xenophobic bullying having come to Japan with his non-Japanese mother (Asuka Kurosawa) at seven years old.
Bystanders in the crowd preparing a search for the second missing girl are quick to blame the other, one loudly casting suspicion on “Africans” living nearby while another brings up a man who sells second-hand cars she feels is a little odd. Takeshi gets the blame because he exists to the side of the community but also because he is meek and vulnerable, unable to defend himself until pushed into a corner and provoked into an explosive act of self-destructive violence. “Suicide brings redemption” Aika’s grief crazed grandfather (Akira Emoto) shrieks as if urging a young man on towards his death based on nothing other than prejudice and bloodlust. Later he admits that he just wanted someone to blame as if that would bring an end to the matter but of course it didn’t, it only added to the burden.
Meanwhile, middle-aged beekeeper Zenjiro (Koichi Sato) who returned to the village to look after his parents following the death of his wife (Shizuka Ishibashi) from leukaemia also finds himself under suspicion but mostly as part of a concerted harassment campaign conducted by two local elderly men who have appointed themselves village elders and resent his attempt to go directly to city hall in order to fund a new business venture without going through them. Zenjiro is originally from the village, this is his hometown, but he was also away a long time and is in a sense other as a new returnee at first courted as a potential suitor for the similarly returned widowed daughter of the local bigwig, Hisako (Reiko Kataoka), and then aggressively shunned to the point he begins to lose his mind leading to another shocking act of irrepressible violence.
“No one trusts anyone” Tsugumi laments, angrily tearing away an annoying sign asking residents to report any “suspicious behaviour”. She insists they need to face the past in order to move on, something Zenjiro was ultimately in capable of doing, but later claims that she doesn’t need to know what happened to Aika, she’s going to live her own life. The path leads towards an acceptance that she wasn’t responsible for what happened to her friend and has no need to live her life in the shadow of guilt, yet she still falls victim to small-town attitudes more or less bullied into a romantic friendship with a distinctly creepy young man (Nijiro Murakami) who admits to slashing her bike tires so she’d be more likely to accept a lift from him.
According to Takeshi, there’s no such thing as the “promised land”, a sentiment also expressed by Hisako who agrees that all places are the same save your hometown something which Takeshi seemingly never had. Tsugumi’s problematic suitor tells her she ought to create the promised land for all of them, which might be as close as the film comes to a mission statement in suggesting that the individual has agency to craft the world in which they live while subtly undercutting it in the melancholy stories of Takeshi and Zenjiro each hounded towards acts of self-inflicted violence by an intransigent community mired in a primitive us and them mentality. Far from paradise, small-town Japan is a land of fear and suspicion where outsiders are unwelcome and the old hold sway, complaining that their kids all end up in the city while secretly perhaps satisfied in the knowledge their authority will not be challenged. If there is a promised land, you won’t find it here.
Original trailer (no subtitles)
Images: © 2019 “The Promised Land” Film Partners