Miwa Nishikawa’s adaptation of Ryūzō Saki’s novel Mibunchō (1990), is a beautiful portrait of a character trapped between the past and the future. We’ve each experienced a moment of hyperawareness, of standing in the present and looking backward or forward. It’s an anxious episode in which we can become hyperaware of the time that’s passed us by. The experience may provoke nostalgia or regret (or a little of both).
In that moment a series of events are simplified, the slow tide of time is no longer transparent to our minds’ eye. We recall the choices we’ve made. We question our judgement, but we’re powerless to change what has happened. All we can do is move forward.
Not all of us can identify with Masao Mikami (Kôji Yakusho), a former driver for the organized crime syndicate in Japan, the Yakuza. After serving a 13-year prison sentence, Masao Mikami must reintegrate himself into a world that has changed. He finds beginning his life under the open sky difficult, from finding an apartment to the shame of having to apply for social support.
Beginning his rehabilitation outside of prison, he must decide whom he can trust. He encounters people that genuinely care about him, but his desire to reunite with his mother risks being exploited by a director and his cutthroat producer.
If we forget the specifics of his imprisonment for murder and see the context as interchangeable, then we’re able to identify with him. The expectation for Under the Open Sky (Subarashiki sekai) is that it expresses humanity. It needs to provoke our interest to discover Masao Mikami’s fate, but more importantly, we want to feel we’ve been on a journey with the character.
Yakusho captivates with his portrayal of a man with a fierce heart who is humbled by the weight of the wisdom he has accumulated. The story is told with genuine sensitivity, and Nishikawa avoids the naïve suggestion that everything about his Yakuza past was bad. It’s part of his life journey, and the way he set about his work, following simple instructions with efficiency and vigour, are the way he can redeem himself and forge a new path, only this time with different choices.
Sharing in the journey and witnessing the character’s fate is only the shell of the story. Nishikawa fills that shell with themes and ideas that counter the threat of it becoming a saccharine and sentimental work. If Under the Open Sky is emblematic of contemporary Japan, the insight it offers has an international reach. Its themes and ideas are set out to sea, floating beyond Japanese shores to tap into universal thoughts and feelings.
Overall, the film speaks to our need to forgive ourselves and for others to forgive us. As part of forgiveness, the story encourages compassion and understanding for oneself and for others. Masao conveys an optimistic message of our capacity to change that’s offset with a maturity that acknowledges the remnants of our old self remains. His character reminds us that we’re more than our words and actions. We have thoughts and feelings that we don’t always express, a mix of personalities beneath the one we wish to share with the outside world.
Then there’s the simplest theme and idea that’s spoken in a universal tongue: can we catch up with life and belong once again when we’ve been left behind? The need to belong and have a purpose connects every person, from every walk of life.
On another level, Under the Open Sky echoes the tendency of the media to reduce people to commodities. The news cycle traditionally feeds off people’s lives, seeing them as something to be sensationalized for mass consumption. The producer warns Masao, “Society today is extremely cruel to people who step off the path. One mistake and you’re essentially condemned, but even those of us who stay on the path aren’t happy. So we’re unforgiving. We all feel the same way you do, but we keep our mouths shut in fear of being ostracized.”
Recall the adage to be aware of who carries the message. Masao would be wise to remember this, but he struggles with his aggrieved feelings of the unjust outcome of his trial, which deprived not only his freedom but also precious time with his wife and child. This is not a simple antagonistic narrative thread, it adds a layer to the drama, as the director’s relationship with Masao allows him to experience his redemptive act, and choose either a compassionate path or one of indifference.
Under the Open Sky balances on the subject of human nature. Why is there something cruel in our collective natures that draws us to tragedy, failure, and the pain of others?
Nishikawa cautiously guards against the simpler human narrative that humans easily submit to their cultures’ dominant themes and ideas. There’s an incisive critique of the darker aspects of characters and society present. This balances out the joys of living freely under the open sky, but at its heart, the story will be remembered for the journey we shared with Masao.