Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s new kendo drama epic is a powerful and unflinching examination of parent-child relationships within the rigid constraints of Asian society.
Imagine The Karate Kid gone dark, except change ‘karate’ to ‘kendo’, set the movie in the idyllic Japanese seaside city of Kamakura, and make every single character in the movie incredibly nuanced, but near-detestable. These are the key ingredients with which Kazuyoshi Kumakiri made Mukoku, a beautifully-filmed, quintessentially Japanese affair about ambition, parental conduct, and ultimately, purpose in life. Mukoku is not so much a coming-of-age movie as a ‘coming-to-terms’ movie – it is a wholly different creature from most other movies of its ilk out there today, because it does not pose the question of growing up, but rather of acceptance and resolution within otherwise turmoil-ridden lives.
Mukoku revolves around two central characters, each an anti-hero in their own respects. Kengo, a bedraggled drunkard and part-time security guard, is living at the pinnacle of squalor on the edge of Kamakura’s mountains, having given up his post as a high-school kendo instructor after putting his father in a coma during an ill-fated kendo fight. His relationship with the sport, and his father, is complicated – his father forced him into kendo at a young age and trained him mercilessly to the point of abuse, but his love for the art of the bamboo sword is still clear, and so is his seemingly futile desire for his father to love him in turn. On the other side of the coin there is Hada, a juvenile delinquent obsessed with hip-hop music, who is roped into a kendo fight in order to reclaim his beloved music player from a gang of older bullies. Despite his inexperience, his resilience and unbridled spirit catches the eye of Mitsumura-san, the owner of a kendo dojo, who takes it upon himself to train Hada and give the young waif a channel for his furious boredom with life. But there is more to Mitsumura that meets the eye – setting up an encounter between his young upstart Hada and his old protégé Kengo, he ensures a growing vendetta between the two men, who in turn have to come face to face with their own problems before they can face each other in battle.
Kumakiri handles his chosen themes gracefully, with no promises of true happiness in any one way of life, nor rose-tinted perspectives on ancient Japanese tradition
To say that Mukoku is a love letter to kendo wouldn’t be wrong, but is hardly a true summary of what the movie is about either. Of course, the movie’s kendo sequences are filmed masterfully; creating a feeling of real action and dynamism in spite of kendo’s nature as a stop-and-start sport. Kendo is also an integral element of the film, without which the two men cannot move forward in life; a prime example of the inherently Asian values of discipline, dedication, and purpose. But Mukoku is hardly authoritarian in its message. The denouement of the film comes at a price for both men, and does not sugarcoat the fact that the Japanese mindset, and the way of life prescribed by kendo’s Buddhist mantras, requires a fourth element – sacrifice. Even the film’s title, which translates to “helplessness” in English, is illustrative of the state of both Kengo and Hada, at the start and the end of the movie. While stopping short of outright despondence and cutting to the credits on a surprisingly positive note, Kumakiri handles his chosen themes gracefully, with no promises of true happiness in any one way of life, nor rose-tinted perspectives on ancient Japanese tradition.
Slightly less relatable for Western audiences, perhaps, is Mukoku’s examination of Kengo’s relationship with his father. The elder Yatabe is an example of a “tiger father” on the extreme end of the spectrum, beating and berating his son in his pursuit of kendo glory. But he is hardly a caricature, or a copy of the Strict Asian Parent meme from the late noughties netscape – the extent to which he goes to train his son and to preserve the purity of his own teachings is horrifically extreme, making Kengo a sympathetic character and explaining his decrepit state at the start of the movie, but at the same time is understandable from an Eastern perspective, especially by those whose own parents used a lesser degree of force majeure to herd their children onto the path of excellence in any field. Kengo’s own conflicting feelings about his father are multi-layered, and Mukoku studies them well without trying to explain away the complexities of a dysfunctional parent-child relationship. Beneath Kengo’s hatred for his father’s ferocity is a deep-seated need for acceptance and a hopeless love for the man that shunned him – sentiments which, when revealed, are even more resonant within the film’s context and setting. This tender portrait of a broken family is made even more potent by Go Ayano’s performance, which truly gives Kengo’s character his repulsive yet heart-rending qualities. Nijiro Murakami, who plays Hada, is also a name to watch out for; his recalcitrant portrayal of suppressed anger and loneliness was truly compelling.
without a doubt, a fantastic film
The cinematography and stylistic quirks in Mukoku are also not to be trifled with. Kumakiri borrows heavily from the glory days of Dario Argento and other Italian horror/giallo films, with several dream sequences taking place under surreal orange and purple lights, using close-ups of crazed eyes, vomiting live fish, and black oil rain. Even its sober, realistic sequences are bracing, with Kumakiri using his sets and props to achieve brilliant emotional effect – a screen filled with rusting metal Buddhas, their watchful black pupils starkly set against pristine eye-whites, all gazing at a hysterical Kengo in a moment of repentance and shame, is a particularly striking image, and perhaps even one of the best I will see this year. Gritty realism rarely goes with surrealism, but Mukoku blends the two in perfect harmony. Perhaps the only flaw in the film is that it is too long – the last ten or twenty minutes of the movie (except for its final scene) feel completely unnecessary, which admittedly add to the artistic merit of the film but drags too much out of its already perfect resolution.
Mukoku is, without a doubt, a fantastic film. It is a testament to the excellence of Japanese cinema that chooses a more traditional focus, and a talent-filled showcase of issues that plague the inner workings of East Asian society. And if its transgressions, length-wise, are forgiven, it could very well stand a good shot at winning Best International Feature at Raindance this year – another accolade to add to Kumakiri’s already well-deserved bevy.
‘Mukoku’ is now playing at the Raindance Film Festival 2017, taking place from 20th September to 1st October. Information and tickets here.
Image: Raindance Film Festival 2017