The Kamagasaki Cauldron War (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2019]

Kamagasaki is a slum-like part of Osaka’s Nishinari district, notorious for having a high concentration of day labourers, homeless and a history of civil unrest, not to mention its proximity to the Tobita Shinchi red-light district. When I lived in Japan and moved from Tokyo to Nishinari, I was given warnings and advice from friends. The way some people talked about the history of Kamagasaki made it sound anarchic and dangerous. By the time I got there, things had become tamer thanks to gentrification driven by the boom in tourism and my experience was positive. Indeed, as soon as I was off the train, a day worker with a sunny disposition struck up a conversation and offered to buy me a drink before my landlady rescued me from the surprise invitation and showed me around the district. They were the first of quite a few residents who took the time to dispel the myths by telling me different stories of a poor but proud community who have had to fight for their human rights and dignity. The history and feel of Kamagasaki is strong and director Leo Sato has managed to bring it to life in his debut feature fiction film.

The Kamagasaki Cauldron War tells a tale of ordinary people, down-and-outs, charity and church workers, political activists, police and outlaws meshing together in a warm-hearted ensemble piece. Their paths usually run alongside each other but collide when cheeky, 12-year-old kid Kantaro (Tsumugi Monko) steals the local yakuza gang’s treasured ceremonial cauldron and finds himself on the streets. It comes at a time when the head of the gang wants to pass control to his son, the affectless Tamao (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), and soon gangsters are prowling everywhere to get it back. Fortunately, Kantaro is taken under the wing of affable pickpocket Nikichi (Yota Kawase) and hardheaded sex-worker Scarecrow Mei (Naomichi Ota). They both have history with Tamao and exploit the situation to make a little cash in schemes and misadventures but things get a lot more complicated when a property developer tries to force the town to change and starts causing trouble. A big battle will kick off in front of a giant cauldron, the symbol of Kamagasaki, which is used to feed the destitute and everybody will come together to face it!

Leo Sato based the film on the rakugo story Kamadoro (rice pot thieves) and it was informed by the director’s experiences filming his documentary Nagai Park Elegy (2009) for which he lived in the titular park with a homeless community and recorded people’s opposition to their forced eviction at the hand’s of city workers. Here he tells a similar story, taking elements from real life such as police and yakuza colluding in the gentrification process, while placing Kamagasaki and its populace on the screen. Shot over the course of five years on location and with locals involved for some social realism it lives and breathes the atmosphere of the place with busy boulevards leading to the upmarket Abeno’s Q Mall, the parks with tarpaulin tents, the quiet rabbit-warren of alleys near Tobita and standing bars full of day workers providing the backdrop. Sato uses many different and unique characters to give the widest view of life across the area possible and audiences get a deep dive into an often unseen, earthier side of Japan which is under constant threat of erasure by local government and tourist development.

For all of its realism, it feels sort of like a fairytale due to its rakugo origins and its sprawling story full of boisterous colourful comical characters who are imbued more with charming mischievousness and rebelliousness than scary malevolence. They are all pulled together by Kawase’s jolly presence and winning smile which he maintains in increasingly farcical situations as he goes from pick-pocket to reluctant revolutionary. The interactions between everyone are amusing, any violence more comical than serious, and the history of people and places is neatly brought out by dialogue rich in Osaka’s playful dialect as well as the shots of weathered faces of the non-professional actors.

Due to Sato’s choice to use 16mm film, the visuals have a heady atmosphere that make the movie look like a throwback to an Art Theatre Guild film from the 1980s. The lack of smartphones and other devices and the way people wear utilitarian fashion or cast-offs also make it hard to concretely locate it in the here and now and that gives the film a timeless quality. Perhaps it is because their battle for community rights is a timeless one.

This is a film that is unlike a lot of what is produced by Japanese cinema and features an area often avoided. It tells a unique and amusing story with warmth and truly captures the atmosphere of Kamagasaki, documenting a location and people which will be lost to gentrification and the passage of time, showing the positivity of an area blighted by a bad reputation and lionising the community’s spirit on film ensuring that it will last forever.

The Kamagasaki Cauldron War is showing at JAPAN CUTS 2019 on July 21.