“Prison is the only place that won’t kick you out no matter how badly you behave,” remarks the ex-con protagonist, who gets no second chances in Japanese society. Directed with piercing insight, emotional depth and true compassion by Miwa Nishikawa, “Under the Open Skies” tells the heartbreaking tale of a pariah whose soul is crushed by systemic discrimination and a world of hypocritical conformity. Ignited by the consummate performance of Koji Yakusho, this masterful human drama will weigh like a boulder on viewers’ consciences while likely collecting awards at home and abroad.
Ever since her sophomore feature “Sway” premiered at Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight in 2006, Nishikawa has been a name to watch for riveting, wickedly cynical works. She also excels in drawing morally ambiguous characters: liars and swindlers hiding secrets behind their social standing. Though her technique is no less rigorous, her sixth film treads a new path by rooting for a career criminal from the lower depths who suffers for his honest values. This puts the film in the same league as such humanist classics as Xie Fei’s “Black Snow” and Shohei Imamura’s “The Eel,” which also stars Yakusho as an ex-convict.
Another first in Nishikawa’s career is to forgo an original script in order to adapt the 1993 Naoki-prizewinning novel “Mibuncho” (Identity Book) by Ryozo Saki. Saki, whose “Vengeance Is Mine” became Imamura’s masterpiece, styled his portrayals of gangsters and serial killers after Truman Capote’s “Nonfiction Novels.” “Open Skies” is nowhere near as hardboiled as Saki’s world, but it does prove that social attitudes and inequalities have barely progressed since the 90s, when “Mibuncho” took place. What the film depicts in equal measure, is the power of empathy and kindness. Hence the Japanese title “Subarashiki Sekai” (Wonderful World) with its ironic yet Capra-esque connotations.
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Masao Mikami (Yakusho, “Shall We Dance?,” “The World of Kanako”) is released after serving a 13-year sentence for murder. A onetime chauffeur for the yakuza, he moves to Tokyo and vows to go straight. But it’s difficult to move on when “inmate records,” kept by prisons, can be passed around to other state and public agencies without the subjects’ knowledge or permission.
Much absurdist drama revolves around Mikami’s attempts to renew his driver’s license so he can apply for one of the few jobs he qualifies for. Even with the help of lawyer Souji (Isao Hashizune), the system is a Kafkesque castle of red tape. Blazing encounters confirm a vicious circle of the public assuming the worst of him, provoking him to flare up, which reinforces their prejudice and contempt.
Meanwhile, TV producer Yoshizawa (Masami Nagasawa) and director Tsunoda (Taiga Nakano) see the potential for a sensational redemption show, and bait him with promises to find his long-lost mother. When the shoot goes south, Mikami, hurt by the betrayal, goes back to his native Kyushu, hoping to re-enter the fold of his boss Shimoinaba. Sadly, the reunion turns out to be a reflection on the demise of the traditional yakuza. In a deflating moment, he glances at a tattooed, shriveled old codger tending the garden, and recognizes himself years down the line.
It is impossible not to care about this man, who simply longs to belong, feel useful and be appreciated. What high cost he pays represents the film’s scorching social indictment. Yet, his journey would not be so moving if the film hadn’t balanced his misfortunes with the kindness of so many ordinary folks, like Souji, welfare officer Iguchi (Yukiya Kitamura), who is humbled by his rejection of handouts, or supermarket manager Matsumoto (Seiji Rokkaku), who atones for wrongly accusing him of shoplifting.
Most heartwarming is how Tsunoda’s cynicism and intellectual condescension subtly give way to understanding and solidarity. The character arcs of Matsumoto and Tsunoda affirm that attitudes can be changed. At the end, Mikami becomes their salvation by reconnecting them to their own humanity.
Two images stand out in Nishikawa’s character study: Mikami marching vigorously behind various officers of authority, and breaking down in tears on three unexpected occasions. They represent the regimented life he’s been forced to lead, against his impulse to express true feelings.
His tragic dilemma also embodies the plight of the silent majority, encapsulated in Yoshizawa’s observation, “Society today is extremely cruel to people who step off the path… But even those of us who stay on the path aren’t happy. So we’re unforgiving.” As we piece together Mikami’s life of shuttling between institutions, Japan itself hovers like one big penitentiary for all citizens.
In his portrayal of a flawed hero who wears his heart on his sleeve, Yakusho is a towering presence delivering his career-best performance. The versatile actor fills his middle-aged role with a childlike innocence that makes him trusting of anyone who doesn’t look down on him. He also lightens his personality with clownish mannerisms, to underline how his codes of honor are outdated in contemporary society. Nor does he avoid generating discomfort when unleashing his violent streak, even though it’s only triggered in defense of the weak. The rest of the pitch-perfect cast steers well clear of mawkish emoting.
Production quality is top drawer, with the convergence of contemporary veracity with soft stylistic grace notes. Norimichi Kasamatsu, who lensed Lee Sang-il’s masculine fugitive thrillers (“Villain,” “Unforgiven,” “Rage”), imbues a rough-edged, grassroots sensibility to visuals. Composer Masaki Hayashi sways moods with songs sung or heard by characters rather than wall-to-wall music.