Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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DAIHACHI YOSHIDA: THE SCYTHIAN LAMB/HITSUJI NO KI (2017) - NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL

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RYOHEI MATSUDA IN THE SCYTHIAN LAMB

Rich ingredients, small pot

The premise of The Scythian Lamb, based on the manga Hitsuji no ki originated by Tatsuhiko Yamagami and Mikio Igarashi, is almost too good to be true. The city government of Uobuka, a little Japanese seacoast town of declining population, decides to cooperate with the prison system, which is trying to reduce its numbers by releasing low-risk prisoners early, provided they stay in an assigned location for ten years. Uobuka gets six parolees at once, all convicted of murder. The possibilities are infinite. And this is the charm of Daihachi Yoshida's movie. As it unreels some of those and holds others in check, it avoids getting pinned down to any one genre. There is film noir, murder, romance, melodrama, thriller, suspense, and it's all laced with comedy. Rumors, which can't be verified, say that experiments like this actually have been carried out to help repopulate Japan's dwindling rural areas. It's doubtful there's been an all-murderer program, though.

At the center of things is a handsome and gentle young man who works for city hall called Hajime Tsukisue (pop singer Ryo Nishikido). Like any bureaucrat, he's stuck with executing an unappealing plan not at all of his devising. He must greet the new arrivals one by one, knowing only that they're ex-cons, at first, not their crime, and keep an eye on them thereafter. Nobody is to know who these people are, and they are not to know about each other.

The movie provides an opening series of vignettes in which Tsukisue greets the new arrivals one by one, takes them for a drive, and treats them to dinner - six get-acquainted sessions for him, and for us. Hiroki Fukimoto (Shinjo Mizusawa), to start, an angular, nervous type, very ill at ease, who gobbles up food and drink like Robinson Crusoe. Later he will get to work at the barber shop. Is he alcoholic? Yes.

Shinjiro Ono (Min Tanaka), even more angular, and ancient, is yakuza through and through, with a big scar down one side of his face. He doesn't warm to Tsukisue's "It's a nice town, with nice people, great seafood." But he scares away the gangsters that come to reenlist him. He thoroughly rejects his past life. And so, he's perfect for the dry cleaner's. Except his bad back isn't good for the ironing.

Equal opportunity, or sort of: two of the six are women. Both are pretty. One, Reiko (Yuka), goes to work at the senior center. Which is fine, except she and Tsukisue's father enter into a romantic attachment. The other, Kiyomi Kurimoto (Michiko Hichikawa) is sort of sweet, but also a bit dour and spooky. She gets assigned to a crew doing street cleanup. She likes to dig, and she likes to bury stuff. No worries.

There is one nice guy, Itchiro Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda). He has a positive attitude from arrival. He finds the seafood delicious. He looks and acts quite normal. Watch out!

And there's the snarky Sugiyama (Kazuki Kitamura, an actor whose resume includes Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and The Raid 2 (2014). He's a provocative type, with a menacing, sleazy grin. It's clear from the get-go that going straight is not his intention. He's not only dangerous but wants you to know it. He goes to work down at the docks; he has nautical experience. He's looking for trouble - and other bad guys to join up with.

If Yoshida lingers over these intros, who can blame him? All the enjoyment of the characters doesn't get in the way of an exciting and suspenseful story-line.

Murderers are a diverse lot. Some kill by accident, others by necessity. (One of the ladies did kill an abusive husband.) Others kill by profession, or in their line of criminal work. Or in a unique fit of anger. Anybody might do it. It can happen by accident. Others do so out of overriding compulsion, and that's not an accident. All these categories are represented in the group. All of them are, by their pre-arranged jobs, inserted into the fabric of the community. It's a really small town.

Tsukisue, in a manga touch and a cool one, leads a sort of double life. In the daytime, his hair is combed back and he's always in a suit and tie. Off duty, he dons ragged jeans and T shirt, his hair flops over his eyes, and he's in a loud garage band. Clark Kent becomes a rock star.

The population grows by one without government help, when Aya (Fumino Kimura), Tsukisue's high school crush, returns to Uobuka. Tsukisue persuades her to join the band and play lead guitar, like in high school. There's a guy who plays drums. Guess who wants to learn guitar? Miyakoshi, the friendly, normal-seeming guy, who now drives a blue and yellow delivery truck.

The town has an ancient myth, and a giant bronze statue on a cliff to embody it: Nororo. Kids play around in a park one day stumbling like zombies, chanting "Nororo, Nororo!" - a neat way of introducing the theme. Nororo is a monster overlooking the sea. Legend has it that each year in olden times two men were thrown into the sea to appease Nororo's anger, and only one would survive. There is a Nororo festival every year today, with traditional costumes, and a young colleague of Tsukisue's, who has broken into their boss's computer and found out the identity of the new arrivals, unwisely arranges to have them all invited to participate in the Nororo festival. This makes for a dramatic and revelatory scene, with a dark night, a roiling sea, and men in white traditional costumes. But it's a photo of this in the newspaper that brings on the climactic sequence of events.

Daihachi Yoshida and his writer Masahito Kagawa have contrived an adaptation of their manga source that works - even if there are a few details that may make more sense in an earlier, larger context. The Scythian Lamb concludes with both a violent, suspenseful finale and a happy denouement. It's a delightful, interesting, very Japanese film, a compendium of different genres and moods happily blended in an atmospheric bouillabaisse. Nice town, Uobuka - nice people. Delicious seafood. But some of the fish have to be buried.

The Scythian Lamb / 羊の木 Hitsuji no Ki ("Sheep's tree"), 126 mins., debuted at Busan Oct. 2017, and has been included in five other festivals, including the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival, where it was screened for this review, and will show in Lincoln Center at the Walter Reade Theater on July 5 at 9:15 p.m.

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