Written by Patrick Hao
Under the Open Sky is the disappointing feature from Miwa Nishikawa attempting to explore the difficulties an ex-convict faces as he tries to integrate back into society. That ex-convict is Mikami (Koji Yakusho), a former member of the Yakuza, who had just spent thirteen years in prison for murder for which he claims was self-defense. An impulsive but sweet man, Mikami struggles to find a job especially as the little indignities of people’s prejudices begin to mount.
As much as this film is about the failure of a system, it is also about the way a community can help those who are struggling. Despite initial prejudices, everyone around Mikami is earnest in their attempts to help him – even the bureaucrats and welfare officers. It’s human beings trying to be good people. Mikami even forms unlikely friendships with the local owner of a grocery store (Seiji Rokkaku) who initially suspected him of shoplifting and a television director Tsunoda (Taiga Nakano) whose initial intentions were to create an exploitative documentary about him. The film seems adamant that there are no truly bad people, just bad circumstances.
Nishikawa, a disciple of international film darling Hirokazu Kore-eda. possesses the empathetic qualities that make Kore-eda great which can serve a film like this well but she’s heavy handed in her approach. Which becomes frustrating as it becomes clear this filmmaker does not trust the audience. The documentary being filmed about Mikami is used as a device that explicitly spells out the salient observations that could be gleaned from the film moments after they happen. This undercutting any sense of discovery or revelation.
It’s over two hours long doesn’t help, as the film tends to meander in unmeaningful ways. Flashbacks to Mikami’s past offer little insight into what was already established in the present day. And the film’s tangent into whether Mikami will return to his life in the Yakuza seems only to occur in order to fulfill some sort of quota.
That is not to say that Under the Open Sky can be entirely dismissed. The film is buoyed by an excellent performance from Yakusho. He is tender and funny with an unpredictable explosiveness. Every film, no matter how shaggy, will feel steady when it is anchored by a consummate pro like Yakusho. Nishikawa, herself, is not an untalented filmmaker by any means. The warmness and goodness of her characters, mixed with her soothing cinematography and tinkling score had me almost tearing up at the exact moments she wanted us to. Its emotional manipulation at its finest.
Under the Open Sky is only disappointing because the elements of a good film are present on screen. Maybe a tighter cut would have allowed the film to focus instead of feeling like a shallow exploration of its themes. Alas, at least we are left with a great performance from Koji Yakusho.
Under the Open Sky Trailer
You can purchase a ticket to see Under the Open Sky in Canada from Fantasia Film Festival and in the United States of America at New York Asian Film Festival.