The Scythian Lamb (Japan, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

You can never truly know another person, so goes the old existentialist saying. It’s not necessarily that people hide various aspects of their character and history, it’s that people change all of the time. With that in mind, Daihachi Yoshida’s movies dwell in that gap between the fixed persona and the shadows his characters hide and we see the sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic actions that barely repressed desires and fears make people perform. The Kirishima Thing (2012) looked at the politics of high school life with longed-for and thwarted romances between members of various cliques while Pale Moon (2014) looked at the weight of expectation from society through the tale of a normal woman and her desire to escape into fantasy in order to feel desired. They all operate with varying tones of drama and comedy and it is much the same in The Scythian Lamb where tight-knit community is asked to accept a group of outsiders with troublesome pasts and hidden intentions.

Uoboka is a small picturesque port town on the decline due to depopulation so its council has decided to accept six new citizens from outside as part of a government plan to relocate certain people. All are under the supervision of local government official Hajime Tsukisue (played by pop star Ryo Nishikido) who meets each person and gets them settled in their new homes and jobs.

Our kindhearted official is able to offer a warm welcome and the assurance to each tight-lipped person that the people of Uoboka, “are nice and the seafood is great” but when he finds out that each of the mysterious six are all convicted murderers on parole it coincides with a dead body being found in the harbour. With orders to prevent the former convicts from causing trouble, Tsukisue has his work cut out for him. As if that wasn’t enough, the return of his high school crush Fumi (Fumino Kimura) adds another layer of distraction.

Within the first 30 minutes, the film cleanly and concisely establishes the location and characters and it seems that Tsukisue is going to be the straight man in a black comedy as our mild-mannered civil-servant tries to keep the criminals from causing trouble but it proves to be more thoughtful.

Screenwriter Masahito Kagawa takes Tatsuhiko Yamagami and Mikio Igarashi five-volume manga and crafts a story that smoothly transitions from dark comedy to serious drama built upon the characters dealing with guilt with Tsukisue acting as a sort of tent-pole around which the action is arranged. There are the expected teething problems in terms of integration especially for the silent and disconnected Kurimoto (Mikako Ichikawa) and the ex-yakuza Shigeru (Min Tanaka) with his fierce visage and a scar that runs down his face, but others seem to settle in much better with Rieko Ota (Yuka) adding a sensuous aspect to the film with her tight tops and busty frame, sultry and her doe-eyed looks that get hearts racing at the old people’s home she works at. If the murderer is one of the six, it seems the most-likely culprit is the hardman from Tokyo, Sugiyama (Kazuki Kitamura), with his devilish grin and impish sense of humour but the amiable and slightly naive Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda) could be an ally to Tsukisue as he opens up to the charms of Ubuoka.

With six potentially loaded weapons ready to go off, one would expect a thriller to develop, and it sort of does, but not in the way audiences might expect. Yoshida couples that narrative thrust with heavy drama as the story zeroes in on the idea of life after committing murder, and whether a person can be accepted by others, as well as accepting themselves.

It has a long running time but not a second is wasted as sprightly rhythm is kept by bouncing between the many characters whilst building up the town and its inhabitants with a natural escalation of details based on character traits and background and interactions and through this, the different personalities change the course of the narrative and keeps audiences guessing invested in the drama.

Going from guarded to open is a tough process for the six and ripe for drama as Yoshida shows the flow of energy between characters, how they harmonise and clash, how they deal with their shadow selves, their guilt and their anxieties as they partake in community life and find some acceptance. The characters are different enough that it is engaging to watch. Each one plays a part in showing how a person can change (or not) and each deals with their shadow selves in convincing ways to make this a solid drama. The development of some of the characters leaves something to be desired, as in, more scenes to colour their personalities in, particularly Ichikawa’s Kiyomi Kurimoto as this fine actress is a little wasted. However, the film reaches a satisfying conclusion with a thrilling denouement and it is down to a great cast of actors working off a good script and with a director who knows how to frame things perfectly with the actors all given the space required to make their roles work well together, the emotions meshing well and revealing some profound truth about life whilst keeping things light.

The Scythian Lamb is showing on July 5 at the New York Asian Film Festival.