Japanese film “Under the Open Sky”, which was belatedly released in South Korean theaters a few days ago, is a dry but poignant drama revolving around one ex-con’s difficult struggle for rehabilitation. Although he is not a very nice person to say the least, the movie slowly lets us have some understanding and empathy on its flawed hero, and it also makes some sharp points on its social issues via his long way toward readjustment.
Kōji Yakusho, who has been one of the best actors working in Japan as appearing in a series of notable films ranging from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure” (1997) to Hirokazu Koreeda’s “The Third Murder” (2017), plays Masao Hikami, an ex-Yakuza gang member who has been incarcerated in a prison for more than 10 years due to an impulsive act of killing. Because he still thinks he was unjustly punished at that time, Masao does not have much regret on his act of killing, and that causes a rather disagreeable moment between him and the warden of the prison when he is about to be released at last.
As he settles in a little neighborhood in Tokyo, things seem to be fairly going well for Masao. He has a decent sponsor willing to help his adjustment process as much as possible, and a welfare service guy assigned to him turns out to be more caring than expected although their first meeting is not so pleasant to say the least. In addition, there is a young TV director who is going to present Masao’s journey toward rehabilitation on some popular TV show, and Masao actually hopes that his appearance on TV may reach to his lost mother, who abandoned him when he was very young.
Through that young TV director’s little investigation into Masao’s life, we get to know more about how Masao happened to stray into the life of a criminal. Even when he was put into an orphanage, he was a big troublemaker, and, after he eventually ran away from the orphanage, he naturally got himself involved into the seedy world of Yakuza gangs. Even before that murder case, he had already been to prison several times, and nearly half of his life was wasted in prison as a consequence.
Anyway, Masao does not want to go back to crime because of how things have changed in the world outside. While his old criminal world has been going away into past, he comes to learn that he has a serious illness which may cause his death at any point, so he has no choice but to do anything required for his ongoing rehabilitation process.
However, not so surprisingly, his rehabilitation process turns out to be more difficult and frustrating than expected. Because he is too proud to merely depend on welfare money, Masao attempts to get employed as soon as possible, but he is only reminded again and again of how his society is not so kind to ex-cons like him. At least, he gets some generous help and support from several people around him, but the situation becomes often exasperating for him, and we are not so surprised when he unwisely lets himself driven by his old nature at one point.
Meanwhile, that young TV director becomes more conflicted about how to present Masao for his little project. When he happens to come across a moment when Masao becomes quite violent, he shoots almost everything as demanded by a female TV producer who hires him, but then he changes mind because he comes to care a lot about Masao, and that leads a conflict between him and Masao when he comes to delve a bit deeper into Masao’s longtime resentment toward his mother.
Around that narrative point, the screenplay by director/writer Miwa Nishikawa, which is based on the novel written by Ryūzō Saki (He also wrote “Vengeance Is Mine”, which was subsequently adapted into Shohei Imamura’s 1979 film of the same name), takes a little left turn as its hero is tempted by his old criminal life more than before, but the movie sticks to its calm and thoughtful tone as before. Although he feels a bit better than before as welcomed by a certain old criminal friend of his, Masao is reminded again that his good old time will never come again, and there is a little melodramatic moment when he is sincerely advised to do what is really the best for himself.
During its last act, the movie becomes rather predictable as its hero comes to open his eyes more to whatever he should do for the rest of his life, but Yakusho’s strong performance keeps holding our attention under Nishikawa’s sensitive direction. As Masao eventually comes to find how to adjust himself more than before, we observe how much he is changed in comparison, and Yakusho quietly conveys to us his character’s gradual inner transformation without emphasizing that too much.
In conclusion, “Under the Open Sky” is another solid work from Nishikawa, who previously impressed me and other audiences via her previous film “The Long Excuse” (2016). She once worked under Koreeda in “After Life” (1998), so it is not so surprising that both of these two films show the clear influences from her mentor, but they also show her own directorial touches in terms of mood and storytelling, and, in my humble opinion, she deserves more attention as another promising Japanese filmmaker besides, say, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. In short, this is one of better films I saw during this year, and I sincerely urge you to give it a chance someday.