Under The Open Sky (2020) review [Nippon Connection 2021]

Introduction

Four years after The Long Excuse (2016), Miwa Nishikawa (Yureru (2006)) present her newest narrative, Under the Open Sky. Once again, she tackles the irreducible tension between a societal body, a body riddled with preconceptions and imposed unwritten rules, and the subject who tries to assume a certain ego. Yet, whereas in The Long Excuse (2016) it was all about maintaining one’s ego-image in the eye of the Other, Under The Open Sky is all about re-formulating one’s ego in such a violent Other.   

Review

After serving 13 years of his sentence, ex-yakuza ‘brawler of Kobe’ Masao Mikawa (Koji Yakusho) gets released from Asahikawa prison. He returns to his hometown Tokyo, determined to life a straight life without yakuza and without crime, and tries to find his long-lost mother, from whom he was separated as a child, by applying for a tv show. One day, he is approached by Tsunoda (Taiga Nakano), the young TV director in charge of making this ‘documentary’.  

Under The Open Sky (2020) by Miwa Nishikawa

Under the Open Sky can best be described as a nuanced character study and an exploration of how a subject, released from prison after so many years, is confronted with a societal Other that distrust him.

The first element that Mishikawa touches upon in her character study is the presence of an unresolved trauma. Via a television program about adoption, in which a woman explains her reasons for giving her child away, this trauma, a trauma that has and still animates Mikawa’s comportment, is introduced. Nishikawa, in fact, masterly evokes that the act of being refused and abandoned by one’s parents is a traumatic event for the child, an event with a defining impact on the logic of the subject and the trajectory of said subject. The concatenation of violent acting-outs in his past and his decision to assume a position and establish his ego within the patriarchal and hierarchal structure of the yakuza is not unrelated to his unresolved trauma.   

Certain of Mikawa’s emotional reactions are, undeniably, function of this deep-seated trauma. One of these moments is when Mikawa, after been asked by Tsutomu Shoji’s wife (Meiko Kaji) if he wants seconds or noodles, starts crying. While one can, of course, reduce this moment to a mere emotional reaction to her welcoming friendliness, such reading would ignore the fact that it is only because this woman reflects the motherly position that Mikawa’s emotions overwhelm him.    

Under The Open Sky (2020) by Miwa Nishikawa

The second element, the element that animates and structures the entire narrative, concerns the act of reintegration in the social field. Leaving the strict, predictable, and military-like prison regime behind, Mikawa is given the difficult task to reintegrate himself within the changed Japanese society, to establish a new position/place for himself within the dynamic societal fabric (Narra-note 1). In truth, Mikawa is released from prison into society as an aimless projectile, as a subject that lacks any kind of anchoring position that provides his ego with meaning and direction.

Mikawa is, in fact, tasked to reformulate his ego within this society he is suddenly thrown into. Yet, he cannot rely on his past imaginary decorum as yakuza, nor can he rely on the position he was forced to assume within the highly structured prison. He needs to assume, within the societal fabric, a new societal position, one that gives meaning to his rather pale ego and provides a meaningful direction to his new life.    

Under The Open Sky (2020) by Miwa Nishikawa

One can easily sense that the situation of being thrown into society without any preparation or anchoring elements helps pushing ex-yakuza back into the world of organized crime, not necessarily because the act of committing crime is so deeply satisfying, but because the yakuza-family-structure allows the subject to re-assume his former position, a position of appreciation, and related imaginary ego with ease. Luckily, Mikawa receives some support from his sponsor Tsutomu Shoji (Isao Hashizume), who tries to help him settle within this changed society and supports him in his attempt to establish a symbolic position that will give a sense of purpose within this societal fabric. But will this support be enough?   

It does not take long for the spectator to notice that, in his attempt to assume a new place in society and to leave his Yakuza-past behind, his former life still come to haunt him in various ways. Mikami is, in fact, marked by two conflicts, one inner-conflict and one relational conflict. The inner conflict concerns the fact that he cannot erase his violent past – he is still marked by his past life as yakuza. One of the effects of this inner conflict is that Mikami, to solve certain inter-subjective conflicts, readily grasps back to the ‘violent’ but in a certain sense ‘codified’ ways of the yakuza. His comportment is furthermore molded by the time he served in prison – these moments, where he reveals a military-like discipline, always succeed to infuse a fleeting charming lightheartedness into the narrative.

Under The Open Sky (2020) by Miwa Nishikawa

The relational conflict is that he cannot avoid being brutally reminded/confronted of his criminal past by the ‘dismissive’ and ‘judgmental’ Other. This conflict, which affects his mental as well as his physical health, does not only rears its head at the city hall, for instance when Mikawa and his sponsor try to get him welfare benefits, but also in his interactions with some people and in his attempts to find a job (Narra-note 2). The signifier ‘prison’ forms an obstacle to Mikami’s attempts to secure a job and income. He depends, in his search for a legitimate job, entirely on the willingness of the Other to look beyond the truth of his past and give him a chance (Narra-note 3).

Yet, the bureaucratic system, due to its strict rules, is, in a certain sense, unable to put trust into the subjects who need it. As Nishikawa beautifully evokes, the only element that might be able to aid these subjects with re-integrating into society are meaningful social bonds, bonds that proof that there are others within this judgmental Other that can go against this social tendency of judging, give their trust to the ex-convict, and express their honest believe in the subject’s ability to find a new meaning/direction, establish a reformulated ego, within this societal field.  

Yet, the societal conflict cannot be fully negated by the establishment of some protective social bonds. As the violent tension between judging others and trusting others forms the central dynamic of the narrative, it is therefore not difficult to formulate the main question of narrative that underpins the narrative: Will Mikami succeed in leaving his violent past behind – assuming a more legitimate position within society and finding a different and less violent meaning for his ego – or will the societal and inner conflict he cannot avoid drive him to re-assume his past position as codified criminal, a position that gave him, in the past, a ‘familial’ purpose or doom him to a worse fate?

Under The Open Sky (2020) by Miwa Nishikawa

The composition of Under The Open Sky stands out due to its reliance on static shots. The static tendency, coupled with a certain compositional simplicity – Nishikawa refrains from using the cut too much – allows her to emphasize the speech-interactions between characters and present them to the spectator in a straightforward and sincere manner.   

Of course, Nishikawa’s reliance on static shots does not mean there is no cinematographical dynamism present in the composition. Nishikawa often mixes a slow spatial movement or a tracking movement into her otherwise static visual composition (Cine-note 1). Yet, dynamism in Under The Open Sky is minimal, applied with restraint and subtlety. The visual dimension of composition is marked by slightly subdued colours. By not allowing the colours to have their vividness, Nishikawa subtly counters the feeling of a naïve positivity – the ‘freedom’ under the open sky is marked by a social intolerance that attacks and ‘imprisons’ the subject in his endeavour to assume a positive place within such unforgiving society.      

With her deeply humanistic Under The Open Sky, Miwa Nishikawa re-affirms why she is one of the leading contemporary Japanese directors. With her elegant hand, a hand fluidly mixing genuine drama with charming moments lightheartedness, she succeeds in delivering a (damning) look at the vicious and unforgiven nature of the judgmental Other as well as heartwarming emotionally rich exploration of the importance of supportive inter-subjective social bonds for the subject to be able to re-formulate their ego and position within society. Highly recommended.

Notes

Narra-note 1: One is left wondering, seeing Mikawa’s case, if the Japanese prison system decently prepares convicts for the challenging task of reintegration or if this system releases them into the wide and changed society with little to no mental preparation and support to hold on to. The only support they seem to receive lies in those subjects willing to sponsor ex-convicts and support them in their attempt to find a new secure place within the societal system.  

Narra-note 2: But like his sponsor rightly argues, if social services refuse to give welfare benefits to yakuza members who are trying to come clean, they become partially responsible for pushing these men back into the world of organized crime.

Narra-note 3: Mikawa is also confronted with his former life as a convict/inmate via the ‘bureaucratic’ problems he encounters, for example when he wants to re-issue his expired driver’s license.

Cine-note 1: Even though there are some exceptions, Nishikawa generally does not use any form of dynamism while framing meaningful speech-interactions between characters or important speech-acts by certain characters. Whenever Nishikawa utilizes cinematographical dynamism in her framing of interactions, she either does so in the moment that immediately comes before the speech-interaction is initiated, the moment after the speech-interaction or speech-act has finished, or in the moments during an interaction that are marked by a certain silence or by a certain subtle corporeal movement.

One exception to this ‘rule’ concerns Nishikawa’s approach to the speech from interviews, telephone conversations, and so on. Such speech can ‘overlay’ more dynamically framed sequences. Yet, these visual sequences are unrelated to the contents of the accompanying speech.   

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