“A moving and motivational piece that beautifully reveals (…) the importance of assuming a place to speak and thus a place within society. (…) Without a doubt, (…) the best Japanese movie of 2016.”
While Daisuke Miyazaki’s oeuvre is still limited, consisting as of now of only three full-length feature films, he can – and this is a testament to his directorial talent – boast about the many official selections his narratives have earned at international film festivals. In 2013, Raindance Film Festival selected Daisuke Miyazaki as one of the “7 Japanese Independent Film Directors You Must Check Out”. So, maybe a bit later than others, we decided to check his second feature film, Yamato (California), out.
[Yamato(California) will be screened at this year’s Japan-Filmfest Hamburg – JFFH.]
Sakura (Hanae Kan), a troubled teenager, lives together with her mother Kiko (Reiko Kataoka) and her brother, Kenzo in a small house near Navel Air Facility Atsugi, an American army base close to Yamato city (General note 1). Sakura loves to rap, inspired by the american rappers she admires, but her stage fright makes it impossible for her to perform in front of an audience.
One day, her mother announces that Rei (Nina Endo), the daughter of her american boyfriend Abby, will come over to stay for a while. While this sudden announcement and the coming visit is not in the least appreciated by Sakura, it soon becomes clear that Rei and her have more in common than she initially thought.
Yamato (California) concerns the coming-into being of Sakura, an insecure and troubled teenager who has found herself a place as a sort of outsider within the local community. Sakura has constructed her self-image by infusing her ‘Japaneseness’ – note that her name refers to a Japanese national symbol – with American cultural elements, e.g. rapping, hip-hop styled clothing, consuming coca-cola, and so on (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2). In the image of american hip-hop, she has found a mirror to reflect her troubled subjectivity; the act of writing lyrics acting as a way to express her troubled state-of-mind and reveal her troubled relationship with being a speaking being as such.
But her investment in rapping and the associated life-style act solely as a defense – against others and herself. Her casual speech, characterized by her brother as only consisting of fuck ‘something’ and shit ‘something’, is only successful in distancing herself from others – and even isolating her within Yamato’s hip-hop scene in Yamato. In other words, her speech, which is problematic, fails to express that what troubles her in a way that would be constructive in the process of her coming-into-being. Sakura finds herself in a state of subjective stasis and her investment in rapping and hip-hop expresses this failure without providing her with a way out and the possibility of finding a place as a subject within the social fabric – and thus engage with others in a meaningful way (Narra-note 3).
In fact, her stage-fright, which features in her dreams, and her reluctance to rap with another subject as an address is nothing other than an expression of her struggle to assume a voice that would give her a place in the social fabric. Moreover, it reveals a deeper insecurity with herself as human being, which forms the basis of her problematic relation with others. … it is primarily through Rei’s shared interest in hip-hop and her knowledge of the american hip-hop scene – Rei mirroring some of the american cultural elements Sakura has employed to structure her subjectivity – that Rei is able to force herself to become a positive collocutor for her. This bonding, this getting closer together, and the conflict that eventually follows nevertheless confronts Sakura with her own failure to bring her subjectivity into society and forces her to change her safe subjective stasis.
Throughout the narrative, it becomes obvious that Sakura’s problem originates from the neurotic question: Does the other want to lose me? – a question revealing the central anxiety that underlies every subjective coming-into-being (Narra-note 4). In this respect, Sakura’s narrative serves as a beautiful introduction into the problems and struggles youth have within contemporary capitalistic society, while powerfully underlining the fundamental importance of speech as formative and as essential to assume a place and voice within society (Music-note 1).
What empowers Sakura’s narrative, is the field of tension between America and Japan that runs throughout the entire narrative – the history, the clashes and the cultural influences. While the sounds of helicopters and airplanes serve as constant reminder that America is ever present within the narrative space, other aspects, like the references to Okinawa and the controversial establishment of a new army base, Japan’s war history, and so on, highlight the often conflicted feelings of Japanese – especially the older population – towards America. Furthermore, the reality of multiracial relationships and mixed children is also evidently touched upon.
The cinematography of Yamato (California) is characterized by fixed shots, blended with fluid moving shots and shaky moving shots. The movement in the cinematography tends to follow Sakura within the narrative space of Yamato – establishing her as main focus (Cine-note 1). The moving shaky shots, used in the beginning of the narrative, have no other reason than to underline Sakura’s subjectivity and point out that it is only through the framing of her (problematic) subjectivity that a brief insight into the Japanese hip-hop subculture and the underbelly of Yamato will be provided (Cine-note 2). There is nevertheless a subtle cinematographical change to be discerned after Rei enters the narrative. As some moving shots underline Rei’s movement within the narrative space as well, the cinematography heralds the fact that the focus of the narrative shifts towards the development of Sakura and Rei’s relationship (Cine-note 3).
It is by Miyazaki’s psychological sensibility, lucidly translated in the narrative, that the importance of speech and desire in assuming a place as subject within society is able to be framed in such a powerful and moving way. Besides vividly showing the very problem of assuming subjectivity within contemporary society, Yamoto (California) acts as a moving and motivational piece that beautifully reveals the need to cross anxiety to assume one’s desire and, above all, the importance of assuming a place to speak and thus a place within society. Yamazaki’s psychological sensibility mixed with his precise cinematography has turned this narrative, without a doubt, into the best Japanese movie of 2016.
General-note 1: In Japan extraterritoriality for the united states is still effective. This just means that the army-base is part of America.
Narra-note 1: The name Sakura as well as Yamato, the name of the city, are signifiers closely associated with Japan. The latter signifier has the tendency to be synonymous with Japan and the Japanese people.
In the opening shot, a flag of Japan is present. Her notebook, on the other hand, is adored with an american flag.
Narra-note 2: The use of “A Dark Night’s passing” in the lyrics of Sakura’s rap-practice, seems to be a reference to Shiya Naoya’s book of the same name, which is a biographical account of a young man’s coming-to-terms with himself.
Narra-note 3: It should be noted that Sakura is able to converse with Sadao, her friend, in a more normal and not hostile way. While their first interaction is still marked by a subtle tension, a tension originating from Sakura, their second meeting, now with Rei as well, doesn’t feature this tension. One could say that, within her problematic relation with the Other, Sadao is an exception.
Narra-note 4: With rapping Sakura aims to secure her existence within the mind of another. In other words, she seeks someone that would need her existence.
Music-note 1: The most fundamental scene of Yamato (California) – the moment she crosses over her anxiety and assumes her desire, her voice and her place within society – is emotionally empowered by post-rock music. Miyazaki utilizes the emotional communicative strength of post-rock to the fullest.
Cine-note 1: The temporally long opening shot of Yamato (California) is an beautiful example of the power of cinema – and prove of cinema as an art-form.
While not all shots are as temporally long as the opening shot, the narrative often boasts long temporal shots.
Cine-note 2: After the disappearance of the shaky shot, it becomes clear that the narrative’s base cinematographical element is the fixed shot. Nevertheless, later in the narrative, Miyazaki returns to the shaky moving shot to frame shots of Sakura riding her moped with Rei on the backseat, Rei and Sakura walking in the Don Quijote supermarket, and Sakura’s running away.
Cine-note 3: Later in the narrative, following shots are also used to frame Kiko’s and Kenzo’s movement. But these shots enforce the focus on Sakura’s subjective struggle, rather than implying them in the main focus of the narrative.