Do we ever reach a point in life when it’s too late to start over? That’s the question at the heart of Under the Open Sky (Subarashikisekai), writer-director Miwa Nishikawa’s wistful tale of redemption.
When the story begins, Masai Mikami (Koji Yakusho), aka Masai the Brawler, has just spent his last day in prison – or so we hope. Though you wouldn’t know it by looking at him, Mikami is no petty criminal. This over-the-hill convict is a former Yakuza member, and he’s been locked away for 13-years on a murder charge.
Old-age, health issues, and years behind bars seemed to have softened Mikami, who rejoins society a different man. But despite his best attempts to start over, Mikami can’t shake his troubled past.
What’s the point of working to better yourself when you’re defined by the worst thing you’ve ever done? You can’t help but ask yourself that question as you watch this protagonist face a series of indignities.
No matter how hard Mikami works to improve his situation, he can’t catch a break. He may as well walk around town branded with a scarlet letter. Gangsters don’t qualify for social benefits, and his criminal record prevents him from landing a well-paying job. Nishikawa does an excellent job of making you understand how someone in Mikami’s shoes would fall back into a life of crime.
But here’s the wild part. Even the Yakuza are suffering through hard times. When Mikami connects with a former Yakuza brother-in-arms, he discovers that even crime syndicates struggle to get by in today’s weak economy. What’s a former thug to do?
Thematically, Under the Open Sky falls in line with many of cinema’s greatest westerns. This is a story about a man who outlived his usefulness. Like our favourite western protagonists, Mikami is a drifter form a bygone era, someone with a vicious skillset who should have gone out in a blaze of glory. Instead, he’s left to struggle in a world he no longer understands.
We’ve seen versions of this story time and again. A former crook wants to leave the life of crime but gets pulled in for one last job. Although it seems like that’s where the film is headed, Nishikawa breaks from convention to paint a much more complicated picture delivering a sympathetic portrait of a man who strives to change but just can’t help himself.
The brilliance of the film is how it casts Mikami under many different lights. Is he a thug, a victim, or a ticking timebomb? It’s tough to say. What’s certain is Yakusho’s masterful performance makes his character impossible not to root for, even when he gives in to his violent impulses.
This empathetic character study explores a very familiar premise. Fortunately, Nishikawa tackles the material in such thoughtful and compelling ways that things never feel stale. Anchored by Yakusho’s riveting performance, Under the Open Sky forces you to recognize the difference between living and surviving. Mikami is no longer behind bars, but we would be fools to call him free.
TIFF 2020 runs SEPT. 10-19, 2020.