TIFF20’s fourth film on our schedule is the incredibly beautiful Japanese feature ‘Under The Open Sky‘ (originally titled ‘Subarashiki Sekai‘). Inspired by Mr. Ryuko Saki’s novel ‘Mibuncho’ (translated ‘Inmate Files’), director Nishikawa Miwa for the first time ever uses someone else’s story to create one that’s inspired by ex-convicts who try to adapt to a social system that has changed, yet people’s thoughts and attitude toward them have not to the same degree.

Mikami (formerly known as “The Brawler of Kobe”), a middle-aged former yakuza gets released after serving 13 years of sentence for murder. Hoping to find his long lost mother, from whom he was separated as a child, he applies for a TV show and meets the young TV director Tsunoda (Nakano Taiga – ‘Kyo kara ore wa!‘). Meanwhile, he struggles to get a proper job and fit into society. His impulsive, adamant nature and ingrained beliefs cause friction in his relationship with Tsunoda and those who want to help him.

Nishikawa Miwa’s (‘The Long Excuse‘) story depicts the difficulties of living in society with all its traps and deceptions. Nonetheless, there are beautiful moments and connections in life and in the world, but it’s not always clear when and where we encounter them and if we are worthy of them. There’s a recurring line in the film where someone tells Mikawi (Yakusho Koji – ‘Wings Over Everest‘) to “take care and don’t lose your temper”. Mikawi has a bad temper, but while the story rather looks forward than backwards, we do get a brief glimpse at the events leading up to his last imprisonment by the use of a flashback court scene.

The story will speak to people in different ways. There’s never a sense of trying to convince you of his innocence, but rather one in giving him a chance to prove he’s worthy of a second chance at life. These heartwarming moments, wherein Mikawi shows his true self by being overly apologetic after losing his temper over and over again, do make him connect with total strangers who otherwise might have not even noticed him. Nishikawa Miwa has a way of successfully molding human emotions without trying too hard. When Mikawi then also finds out he has high blood pressure that pushes him to control his temper a bit more, out of fear for a stroke, the film creates an unexpected edge.

Yakusho Koji is splendid in the role of Mikawi. He often walks around like Roberto Benigni in La Vita è Bella, but its the control he has over his facial features that really makes this performance notable. He’s not the only one worthy of recognition – Nakano Taiga is just as good, if not better. He brings heart, and boy, does he know how to break it. These two actors and the rest of the ensemble have a way of embracing you through the screen.

Most of ‘Under the Open Sky‘ relies on the lightheartedness of its story, but there’s a shift in tone around the halfway mark, where Mikawi sort of loses track of his life-goals, backpedaling to figure out where he fits into this society. Not necessarily a bad point in the film, but because it feels so immensely different, it does feel off. Luckily, when things move forward again, it feels like meeting an old friend and all worries fade away.

“The brawler who survived the underworld is helpless like a baby in real society”, as one of Mikawi’s new friends points out, is an accurate presentation of the ex-convict’s journey throughout the film. The constant fear of being ostracized or even condemned again, as they point out how ex-convicts are shunned by society and often forced back into a life of crime, rests heavy on Mikawi’s shoulders. By using soothing imagery and a peaceful score, Nishikawa Miwa balances these heavy feelings, to make it both easier for us to relate and root for Mikawai, well knowing anything could happen to him at any given time.

Just the right amount of dark humour is used to make this feel-good heartbreaker stick with you long enough to remind you of its brilliance by the time award season kicks off once again. Talented filmmaker Nishikawa Miwa’s work could finally get some overdue mainstream attention.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Under the Open Sky is set for a Japanese release Feb 11, 2021.

TIFF20 Review – ‘Under The Open Sky’

Reviewed online (as part of Toronto International Film Festival), September 10, 2020. Rating: TBC. Running time: 126 min.

PRODUCTION: A Gaga and Warner Bros. Pictures release in association with BANDAI NAMCO Arts of an AOI Pro production. Producers: Nishikawa Asako, Ito Taichi, Kitahara Eiji. Executive producers: Hamada Kenji, Odake Satomi.

CREW: Director/screenplay: Nishikawa Miwa (based on the novel “Mibuncho” written by Saki Ryuzo). Editors: Miyajima Ryuji, Kikuchi Tomomi. Cinematography: Kasamatsu Norimichi. Music: Hayashi Masaki.

WITH: Yakusho Koji, Nakano Taiga, Rokkaku Seiji, Kitamura Yukiya, Hakuryu, Kimure Midoriko, Nagasawa Masami, Yasuda Narumi, Kaji Meiko, Hashizume Isao.

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