Even though Takahisa Zeze’s started the first decade of his career making softcore cinema (Owaranai sex (1995), Tokyo X Erotica (2001)) – a prolific and experimental time that earned him the status as one of the Pinku Shitenno (Four Heavenly Kings of Pink), he has long since ‘outgrown’ his years of exploration. In more recent years, Zeze pleases and surprises his audiences with his versatility in tackling different genres. In 2015, with Strayer’s Chronicle, he made a sci-fi action film, in 2017, he crafted the historical epic The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine, and, in 2020, he delivered a more straightforward romance drama with Tapestry. And with The Promised Land, Zeze has crafted a somewhat atypical mystery drama.
One day, on her way home, elementary student Aika (-) disappears. At night, while combing out the area around the intersection she disappeared from, they discover her schoolbag in the nearby river. Sadly, due to the lack of further breakthroughs, the horrible kidnapping turns into a cold case.
Twelve years later, Tsumugi (Hana Sugisaki), Aika’s former friend, still struggles with the guilt of leaving her friend alone – i.e. survival’s guilt. One night, after falling from her bike, she receives help from Takeshi Nakamura (Go Ayano), a loner who sells second-hand stuff with his foreign mother. Not much later, after a second child disappears in a similar fashion as Aika, one man’s baseless statement turns him into a suspect. Seeing an angry mob coming after him, he sees no other way than to run away.
A year passes. Zenjiro Tanaka (Koichi Sato) has established his beekeeping business near the place where the two kidnapping cases took place. He is well-respected and is engaged in revitalizing the ailing and aging community. Yet, in his eagerness to do well for the community, he unwantedly angers the town’s council.
The title of the narrative, The Promised Land refers to Takeshi’s fantasy of finding, for him and his mother, a social place that he can call ‘paradise’, a place where the foreignness/Otherness of his mother is not met with a certain hatefulness, where they are not, due to their ‘muddled’ blood, victim of being considered outsiders. The title also refers, in a certain way, to Tanaka’s idea to use the land the town has for beekeeping, because it holds the promise to revitalize the area.
This narrative, which is, in a certain way, about the impossibility of finding an intersubjective paradise, is marked by violence, a crude physical violence and a venomous social violence. The physical violence marks the opening part of the narrative. This violence, directed at the Otherness of the victim, is not driven by any kind of sense of justice. The violence, the physical exploitation of the ‘foreign’ Other, aims at nothing other than gaining enjoyment – what the attacker subjectively enjoys is the very act of subjected this foreign other to his physical power.
The venomous social violence takes the form of a social witch hunt against the Otherness present in the small community, against those ‘subjects’ that are considered foreign, but who also are, due to the imagined danger they pose, kept foreign from the social environment they need/want to function. This social violence explodes when, after a base-less accusation by one of villagers, the group of people who was going to search for the disappeared child surrounds, with anger and passion, Takeshi’s place. That this baseless accusation has such a negative effect on Takeshi is solely because he was never allowed to become a full-fletched member of the community, because he was always kept, due to his Otherness, on the social sidelines of the town’s dynamics.
Takeshi runs from the mob and soaks himself in kerosine not because he is guilty, but because he wants to escape what the mob represents, the passionate and insisting social violence against Otherness, a violence he and his mother Yoko (Asuka Kurosawa) had to endure all their life in Japan (Narra-note 1).
By keeping Takeshi Other and refusing to engage with him at the level of his subject, his subjectivity remains a mystery for the people of the community. Due to this violent refusal to engage with him as subject, only Tsugumi comes to learn that a certain sense of justice drives him. This sense of justice is revealed when he assumes the full responsibility for making her fall from her bike. He does not only give Tsumugi a ride home, but also offers her to drive her to the flute-shop to replace her broken flute and insists on paying for it.
Zenjiro Tanaka, by unwittingly ignoring the hierarchy and the small-town dynamics, also becomes victim of a social kind of violence. Yet, in his case, the violence does not target him because he is Other but is a vicious attempt to turn him into an unwanted Other within the community. To make him into such Other, the council starts bullying him – they ignore him, make the police investigate him, and use various other kinds of verbal and physical violence to confront him with the fact that he is outside the community, and manipulate the town’s once positive imaginary conceptions about him. Yet, what will the effect be of such continued shunning and imposed solitude?
While The Promised Land mainly explores the devastating effects of a socially based and emotionally driven violence, Zeze’s narrative also touches upon other themes (Narra-note 4). He touches upon the social bleeding-out of small rural communities in Japan and the (vein?) attempts that are undertaken to revitalize those areas. The Promised Land also explores the difficulty to master/narrativize a traumatic event. Every violent verbal lashing out by Goro Fujiki (Akira Emoto), be it by blaming, without any physical proof, Takashi for Aika’s death or bluntly asking Tsugumi why she did not die instead of Aika, underlines his inability to give the traumatic event a place within his subjective narrative. Fujiki demands answers, but not answers that will lead him to the truth, but answers that will give a certain truthfulness to his fictional ‘rod’ – i.e. Takashi killed Aika – he accepted to divert his pain and powerlessness with (Narra-note 2). But will knowing who did it help in diluting the traumatic aspect of his loss, will such knowledge make the loss more bearable?
What stands out in the composition of The Promised Land is its dynamism – temperate spatial floating moments fluidly mixed with tracking movements and floating moments of fixity. This dynamism gives the narrative a pleasing flow, a flow that, at the visual level, does not fail to engage the spectator (Cine-note 1). Zeze also heightens the overall visual pleasure of the narrative by inserting beautiful floating landscape shots, shots that not only emphasize the rural context of the narrative but also highlight the beauty of the rural surroundings. Yet, the peaceful beauty of the environment is in stark contrast with the stormy ugliness of the human interactions.
The Promised Land is divided in three chapters, Part 1: Crime, Part 2: Punishment, and part 3: Humans. The beauty of this division lies in the fact that the signifiers remain equivocal. What is the true crime in part 1? Who gets punished in part 2? And what does the signifier humans designate in the third part? The questions Zeze generates via its divisions do not only keep the spectator engaged, but also forces said spectator to interpret what unfolds before his very eyes.
With The Promised Land, Zeze offers a beautifully composed and highly relevant narrative about very destructive kinds of social violence, a social violence against the Otherness present in the community and an ostracizing violence to turn the once-trusted other into an unwanted Otherness. Yet, what makes Zeze’s The Promised Land so pleasing is not so much its composition but its choice to let important questions that propel the narrative forward unanswered, by inviting the spectator to interpret that what unfolds and forcing him to make up his mind about the crime’s perpetrator.
Narra-note 1: One could even contend that the signifier crime, the title of first part of the narrative, does not denote the act of abduction but qualifies the behaviour of the mob.
Narra-note 2: The demand to know for sure that Takashi killed Aika is also function of the sense that, if his fictional rod is not revealed as the truth, but as merely a fiction, he is partially responsible for forcing Takeshi to set himself on fire.
Narra-note 3: Who murdered Aika? Takashi or Zenjiro? Do not expect the film to reveal the truth. Zeze smartly avoids giving the spectator a definite answer, instead giving him visual and narrative hints allowing him to make up his own mind. In our view, given all the hints within the narrative, Zenjiro is the criminal.
Narra-note 4: Zeze also finds time to infuse a romantic dimension into this narrative. Hiro Nogami (Nijiro Murakami) keeps approaching Tsumugi romantically, despite her clear refusals and widow Hisako (Reiko Kataoka) subtle tries to establish something more than just a friendship with widower Zenjiro.
Cine-note 1: Of course, fixed moments/shots are also utilized in the composition. Fixed shots/moments are generally used to focus on characters who are static or become static, on a certain interaction between characters who are rather static or highlight a meaningful object.