Whole (Japan, 2019) [OAFF 2019]

In recent years, the rise of mixed-race Japanese has become a hot topic with “hafu”, a word which is taken from the English word “half”, becoming more visible thanks to sports and entertainment personalities like tennis champ Naomi Osaka and 2015’s Miss Universe Japan Ariana Miyamoto. Even if Japan has been ethnically mixed in the past, hafu are visibly different and are often presented as glamorous and fashionable by advertising execs. This ignores the reality of discrimination and ostracisation they face, something which Bilal Kawazoe’s film Whole looks at as one of the few recent Japanese efforts to look at this issues surrounding being biracial in a homogeneous society.

This film’s two protagonists live in the pretty cosmopolitan city of Kobe. The first is Haruki (Sandy Kai), a biracial student from the suburbs who has quit his overseas college course and returned to Japan to find his identity. Unfortunately, this has been something he has long struggled with and having parents who, judging by the dialogue, are mostly absent even if they are there, don’t take the time to support him, he bottles things up as can be seen on his downhearted face. Haruki then meets Makoto (Usman Kawazoe), a construction worker raised in the projects of Kansai who is also biracial. Ostensibly more confident, he has two guys he hangs out with and shows less fear when travelling in public, laughing off accusations he is a foreigner and joining in with the “banter”. Although Haruki and Makoto are complete opposites in terms of personality and class, they quickly form a friendship full of understanding and sympathy which helps them bridge the gap across the emptiness of being an outsider so they can go from being half a person to a whole.

The film is clear and concise, told with tight direction and confidence in its spare design and writing which makes it a perceptive evocation of searching for an identity. Its narrative has the protagonists almost becoming the best friends that they need at just the right time. Their camaraderie isn’t immediate and it has some form of pity but the two are on the same wavelength and help each other gain some self-esteem in what could be seen as a harsh environment as shown by Kawazoe’s direction which astutely captures the sense of being an outsider with it observing people observing the protagonists and the looks of alienation on their faces. There are a range of situations to let audiences understand that prejudice can take on all manner of forms from the typical “micro-aggressions” that Westerners take to social media to lament about such as praise for fluency in Japanese and using the chopsticks and then there are the galling scenes where someone will display the flat-out disbelief that these two kids could be anything but Japanese. With every scene, we see ways people are made to feel like outsiders and a lot of comments, even if no ill-will is meant, are clearly draining as the two actors display with disconsolate faces, “shouganai” shrugs of the shoulders and forced humour. Throughout the story, Makoto’s inner struggles mount so he can no longer laugh off the prejudice and opens up to Haruki, who initially took things more to heart, but finds a constructive output thanks to his friend. More than that, the film is not afraid to speak up and challenge society, most potently shown in a scene where Haruki vents his frustrations. The dialogue and performances are nuanced and clear enough to get across the longing to find a settled identity without being too blunt.

Another thing worth pointing out is the two supporting characters of Makoto’s mother and Haruki’s friend. Equal parts stern and caring, they keep the guys on an even keel and it is people like these who can make the difference in life just by being there.

Ultimately strength comes from knowing your roots or being prepared to be an individual in a society, something not easy to do in a country where the group is everything, but the film ends on an open and hopeful note as the two young men are able to sincerely face these issues thanks to their friendship with each other and support from two loyal women.

Identity is not solely about how we look but that is something many people struggle to understand. This film helps with that process. After premiering in Osaka, who knows where this film will go next, but the film has international resonance and can travel outside of the specialist festivals dedicated to Japan. Most importantly, Kawazoe tries to create something affecting and relevant in our age of miscommunication and conflict and in the field of Japanese films dealing with the mixed-race experience, it is a welcome addition.

Whole was shown on March 9 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival. It will be shown again on March 15.