Another World (Japan, 2018) [Japan Foundation Film Tour 2020]

Somewhere in rural Japan, underneath a humorously shaped tree-root, two middle-aged friends unearth a time capsule from their youth. They’ve just reunited, a mere three months earlier. The opening scenes of Junji Sakamoto’s Another World, perfectly telegraph the spirit of his latest film. It is a quiet, melancholy, and slow-paced drama thatdeals with issues of family, small-town life, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the value of friendship in an increasingly alienating world.

After a 9-year absence, ex-armed forces captain Eisuke Okiyama (Hiroki Hasegawa) returns to his hometown and reunites with his old junior-high friends, Hiroshi Takamura (Goro Inagaki) and Mitsuhiko Iwai (Kiyohiko Shibukawa). Mitsuhiko owns the local car dealership and lives the relatively comfortable, yet somewhat meaningless, life of a bachelor. He was always the class “clown,” so to speak, and seems to have maintained that quality. Hiroshi (referred to as “Koh” by his friends), on the other hand, is struggling in both his personal and professional life. He’s having a hard time maintaining the customers of his father’s old charcoal business. The countless hours he spends at work not only keep him away from his family – thus distancing him from his son, Akira (Rairu Sugita) – but they are also slowly damaging his health. Both Mitsuhiko and Hiroshi hope that Eisuke’s return will bring back a spark of their former glory days, though it becomes quickly apparent that their friend is not at all how they remembered. His experiences in the army left Eisuke a broken man.

At a first glance, Another World, is a typical tale of nostalgia, regret, and male camaraderie, a rather common plotline in Japanese cinema – the usual small-town gang reminiscing of better times. What sets it apart is the relatability of the characters that writer/director Sakamoto presents on screen. The film avoids the usual clichés by keeping the protagonists painfully grounded in reality as they deal with all sorts of gut-wrenching issues. They are and feel real. Actors Hasegawa and Inagaki – who get most of the screen time – succeed wonderfully in ascribing each of their respective characters a “lived in” quality that makes them worthy of attention. Indeed, the acting is one of the film’s strongest points, driving home its realism. Only Mitsuhiko’s role verges slightly on the stereotype of the “drunken buffoon,” though not so much as to be farcical.

Despite the broad generalization as a “slow” drama, Another World is a rather entertaining film, packed with many tension generating moments. The build-up is slow but immensely rewarding, and even when everything appears to have resolved, another twist is just around the corner. The ending hits a sweet spot between sadness and poignancy, highlighting the film’s themes of trauma, alienation, and acceptance.

One point the film never quite clarifies is the nature of Eisuke’s traumatic experiences in the Self-Defense Forces (SDF; effectively the Japanese army). Initially, there is a casual reference to the shooting of a child, but that’s quickly abandoned in favor of another soldier’s death due to PTSD. Yet the point remains rather vague and ambiguous, leaving a lot of unanswered questions. Where exactly did Eisuke serve when he was enlisted? Was he part of forces that deployed in the Middle East after the Iraq war (a very controversial decision in Japanese politics)? Or did he see action somewhere else? Who was the child that he allegedly shot? An explanation to these questions would have benefited the plot, though all in all, it is a minor quibble.

The slow and meditative pace of Another World may drive certain viewers away but will greatly reward those who are patient with it. Yet again, Sakamoto has delivered a thoughtful and engaging film without descending too deep into needless sentimentalism. An insightful watch for any fan of modern Japanese cinema.

Another World is part of the Japan Foundation Film Touring Programme 2020, which is showing at selected UK venues from January 31 to March 29.