Even though Omoi Sasaki studied theatrical performance under Show Ryuzanji, it was only after working in various industries like fishing, demolition, and Pachinko that he started to make movies. With some short films under his belt, like Left Out (2009), Meteorite + Impotence (2013) and A Boy Sati (2017), he now delivers his first feature film, a sci-fi drama called “A Man in God’s Country”.
In the near future, ‘god’ leads the Japanese nation (once again). While this living god has not made any public presence the last twenty years due to an illness, his portrait – a model of beauty and a symbol of all that is good – adorns public spaces.
One day, two civil servants appear at the Group Home Utopia, an elderly day-care center, to speak with 44-year-old Yoshiko (Asako Ito). They inform her that if she remains single when she turns 45, she loses her right to live in her hometown and need to join the military. To avoid being recruited in the military, she desperately starts searching for a marriage partner. Then, one night, she encounters a man (Norihiko Tsukuda) who broke into a building of the facility in search for food.
A man in God’s Country paints a dystopian picture of a future of Japan in which a form of nationalism tainted with a tinge of religiosity has returned. It is a nationalism that is empowered by the reactivation of the Shinto beliefs and dynamics that underpin the Japanese imperial system. God is a synonym for country.
The nationalism in A man in God’s Country is also nationalism that turns the signifier ‘beautiful/utsukushi’. This nationalistic signifier does not only celebrate youthfulness and fertility, but underpin a societal system focused on raising the marriage rate and combat the declining birthrate. The centrality of this signifier to the nationalistic societal system is clearly evoked via the societal event called ‘Beautiful Matchmaking Assembly’. The sole purpose of these assemblies, as the mayor underlines, is to make beautiful families for the beautiful country, to fulfill one’s duty within the nation of God.
Alas, the land of God is far from beautiful. A man in God’s Country explores the paranoia that lingers in any kind of nationalistic system and the militarism such system demands of its citizens when it fully embraces it. It also subtly touches upon the fact that the power of the Godly Law is antithetical with the protection of the civil rights of everyone and the birth of a kind of nationalistic uniform – i.e. the pomade. And that is not all. Sasaki also explores the role social media plays in broadcasting the nationalistic discourse and poisoning young minds, how the nationalistic narrative, by imposing a qualitative difference between citizens, allows a quantum of hate and violence to blossom, as well as how such discourse, in a certain manner, instigates a celebration of such violence.
Despite the serious tone of the narrative, Sasaki does not refrain from giving his tale of nationalism some lighthearted ironical touches. This irony is not only evident in the kind of beauty the Godly portrait promotes, but also in the fact that the ‘Godly Father’ of the nation is in, a certain sense, presented to the citizens as defective – he is too ill to appear in public (Narra-note 1). Moreover, other ironical moments – e.g. the lack of applause after a nationalist slogan is expressed at the Beautiful Matchmaking Assembly – further underline the defective nature of ‘God’ or the failure of the imposed nationalism. The finale, for that matter, raises the irony to such painful heights that the spectator feels the stupid blindness such nationalism causes as well as the structural hollowness of the element (i.e. God) that allows nationalism to function (Narra-note 2).
Due to the ironic way it stages nationalism, A man in God’s Country also reveals itself as a subtle critique of the current disinterest in Japanese politics and the failure of the societal system to arouse interest in voting. Even though the rule to enlist those who fail to marry before a certain age into the army or revoke their citizenship was accepted through voting – the will of the people, no-one seems to know such voting happened or when this rule was formally put into practice.
What about the sudden appearance of this man without a number on his arm? While Yoshiko sends this Suzuki off with some food, Sumiko (Hisako Okata), who acts as her mother, introduces him the following day as her potential husband. Even though Sumiko is not truly poisoned by the ‘beautiful’ nationalism like the others, she is an old-fashioned woman that laments the fact that her ‘daughter’ has always gone against her expectations and that this ‘rebellion’ underpins her inability to marry and provide her offspring. While Yoshiko is not against to the idea of taking him as her husband, she eventually learns that the country-at-war will ensure all the citizens who report an agent or, in other words, a person without a number to the city their citizenship and pension.
The composition of A Man In God’s Country stands out due to its refined shot-compositions and the colour-design. The shot-compositions are noteworthy not only because they often deliver a visual tension that is interesting and pleasing, but also because Sasaki, by thoughtfully playing with the cut, allows the spectator to find the visual poetry in various shots. Moreover, Sasaki masterfully shows that the element of colour plays an integral role in creating visual poetic moments. Colour-schemes are not only important to determine the mood of a certain sequences but also manipulate the visual tension that is created by playing with geometry.
Yet, the atmosphere of Sasaki’s narrative is not only determined by the more darkish colour-design, but also the thoughtful use of sounds and music. Both elements work together to create an atmosphere that is dystopian and marked by a certain tinge of melancholy.
A man in God’s Country is a wonderful narrative that is not only visually pleasing but explores, with a refined irony, the very problematic dimensions of nationalism. This irony is not only beautifully interweaved in the serious tone of the narrative but reaches such heights in the finale that Sasaki reveals, in a rather painful way, that ‘God’ only functions when he remains absent.
Narra-note 1: Yet the defective nature of ‘God’ does not stop some people from ignoring his defect and assuming that the unworthiness of the citizens is the cause of his public absence. All signs of his humanity are erased to uphold the symbol of one’s nationalistic beliefs.
Narra-note 2: Sasaki’s narrative also reveals that the political power of a country does not lie in the hands of its God, but that he is mere puppet of those politicians promoting nationalism. The human that is forced to wear the clothes of god is a victim of nationalism as well.