The screener of Yamato (California) provided for reviewers comes with the request, “Please watch in the loudest volume possible!!” This leads one to expect that Daisuke Miyazaki’s tale of a wannabe rapper is going to be a full on, blaring experience but its actually quieter, pensive moments that prove to be emotional deafening. Set against the backdrop of the titular Japanese town, which is famous for the looming presence of the US in the form of a massive military base, Miyazaki’s second feature distills the cultural tensions caused by occupation into the life of frustrated high school dropout Sakura (Hanae Kan) who diligently hones her raps in an otherwise deserted junkyard but lacks the confidence to perform. We first see Sakura in this grim scrapheap, rapping to herself, with her blunt force lyrics compounding this initial impression of her place in the world: “Singin’ in the dump, tryin’ to find my future, out of this trash / With a pen and a microphone in my right hand, failure in my left hand / I brush my skills everyday / But nobody pays attention to me.” Sakura is the contradictory type, though, so when someone actually does take an interest in her, she initially spurns a genuine effort to forge friendship.
That person is American visitor Rei (Nina Endo), the daughter of an American G.I who Sakura’s single mother, Kiko (Reiko Kataoka), is dating. Rei moves into the small family home where Sakura shares a bedroom, divided by a curtain, with her geeky brother Kenzo (Haruka Uchimura). The easy going Kenzo is happy to accommodate their guest and both he and Kiko are impressed with the quality of Rei’s language skills with Kiko noticing that she, “even hesitates like a Japanese”. Rei’s expresses enthusiasm for Japanese television dramas and classic anime such as Ghost in the Shell (1995), prompting Kenzo to expound on how, “high culture and sub culture are collapsing and the world is becoming super flat.” But Rei’s curiosity is piqued more by the sullen Sakura than her brother’s otaku musings. She sets about breaking down her reluctant host’s defenses during a tour of the town, which culminates with the pair sneaking into a music venue (both are underage) to check out Sakura’s favourite hometown rap artist. Shopping, drinking, mild drug use, and bonding over music follow, before differences in national perspectives threaten to cause everything to end in tears.
Much like the lyrics of Sakura and the local artists she looks up to, Yamato (California) is almost too on the nose in its discussion of Japan’s love/hate relationship with the US, as dramatized here by Sakura’s burgeoning dynamic with Rei, but Miyazaki is nonetheless unafraid to tackle some intriguing contradictions. Sakura is in thrall to an American musical form while being strongly nationalistic, chiding her brother for occasionally speaking in broken Japanese, and settling for occasional shifts at a flailing traditional restaurant when she could secure regular work at 7/11. Despite her well practiced gangster swagger, Sakura is also insecure and isolated, so she finds herself drawn to the experienced Rei, whose bubbly politeness is as much of a front as Sakura’s insolent snarl. Miyazaki and cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa make this blend of culture part of the film’s aesthetic: they create a sense of dislocation for viewers unfamiliar with its washed-out landscape by filtering it through the tropes of US independent cinema here with a casual emphasis on seemingly unremarkable spaces, frequent use of hand-held camerawork, and shots of the urban sprawl set to rap music that are captured as Sakura rides around town on her scooter. However, the film’s most jarring element is its cluttered soundscape as military jets blast overhead, making it impossible to forget about foreign presence even when in the enclosed space of the home.
Miyazaki’s shoestring budget debut End of the Night (2011) was a cryptically stylish neo-noir that evoked the spirit of independent figureheads Aki Kaurismäki and Jim Jarmusch, but Yamato (California) is a huge leap forward with its confident mix of brash attitude and nuanced sensitivity. He coaxes a fiercely honest performance from Kan that totally owns the screen whether clashing with others, rapping in private, or just snacking in the kitchen. To their credit, Miyazaki and Kan do not make Sakura out to be a great, undiscovered talent or suggest that music will be her ticket out of Yamato – Rei has grown up around the Bay Area scene where local fame can be parlayed into a real career, but Sakura points out that there is no money to be made from rapping in Japan. Rather, they portray Sakura as a fundamentally decent yet troubled youth dealing with a myriad of personal identity issues for whom rap could be a vital catharsis, if only she could rise to the challenge and perform in front of an audience.
Miyazaki perhaps overreaches by including sub-plots and incidents that address the wider social problems of girl gangs and homelessness, but his boldly emblematic storytelling is nonetheless thrilling to behold. Even when played at regular volume, Yamato (California) has a vision that comes through loud and clear.
Yamato (California) is showing as part of JAPAN CUTS 2017 on Saturday July 22 at Japan Society at 7:30pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Japan Society website.