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October 30, 2020

Denver Film Festival - Under the Open Sky


Miwa Nishikawa - 2020

The sky is first seen through the bars of a prison cell. Images of the sky recur as indicators of another chapter in the life of Masao Mikami. Released from prison following a murder charge, Mikami returns to Tokyo with the intention of leaving the gangster life behind. Even though he thinks of himself as a "lone wolf", Mikami is viewed with suspicion as a former yakuza. Also getting in the way is his short fuse, and the discovery that his health is on the line with extremely high blood pressure. For Mikami, a resolve to be optimistic is a challenge. This is especially so as he is 56 and has spent half of his life incarcerated.

Under the Open Sky is notable for the tour-de-force performance by Koji Yakusho. Even if the name is not immediately familiar, even those not following Japanese cinema would have seen Yakusho in Babel or Memoirs of a Geisha. Yakusho has also appeared in several films by Kiyosho Kurosawa. I expect more notice for the film and Yakusho's performance when it gets officially released next year. Mikami is by turns meek, belligerent, accommodating and threatening. Yakusho conveys the rush of adrenaline following street fights with young wannabe tough guys, remembering his days of being known as "Masao the Brawler". At the same time, there is sensitivity without being cloying or dependent on manipulating the audience.

Unlike her previous films which were based on her original screenplays, Mika Nishikawa has adapted a novel by Ryuzo Saki. While bringing up elements of the labyrinthian rules that get in Mikami's way of returning fully to Japanese society, this is not a social drama. Nishikawa's films are about disruptions, usually within a family, usually of a man reappearing after a prolonged absence. The only earlier film by Nishikawa to get any significant release in the U.S. was her 2006 drama, Sway, about a brother who returns to his small town, his rivalry with his brother over a young woman, and that woman's death from the fall of a bridge which may or may not have been deliberate. Nishikawa's career as a director has been involuntarily inconsistent with her writing novels when unable to make films.

In an interview while the film was in post-production, Nishikawa asked, "Is this world a place where we can 'start over again'? I think this question also represents an invisible sense of anxiety and oppression that all people in society have." This is a constant for Mikami who keeps bumping into unexpected obstacles. The film is not without humor, especially in the scenes where the doggedly determined Mikami re-learns how to drive a car. Even returning to his past life is revealed to be at best a limited option with the diminishing influence of the yakuza families.

For fans of Japanese genre films from the 1970s, they may appreciate that the yakuza wife advising Mikami not to return to his old life is none other than Meiko Kaji. At age 73, Kaji is not immediately recognizable from the woman who was a top action star almost fifty years ago. Her brief appearance is enough to bring back memories of her considerable filmography.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 30, 2020 06:42 AM