Seeing Yoshida Daihachi’s The Scythian Lamb for the second time at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, I was reminded of Black Mirror, the British series with provocative “what if” scenarios set in an alternative present or near future. Yes, I am a binge-watcher.
Not that the film’s provincial seaport is a Black Mirror-esque dystopia: As young city bureaucrat Tsukisue Hajime (Nishikido Ryo) keeps reminding us, the people are friendly and the seafood is delicious. But his boss tells him that the town’s population is declining and fresh blood is needed. His bizarre solution: secretly bring in six convicted murderers and parole them for a period of 10 years. If they stay clean they will be permanently freed.
Based on a manga by Yamagami Tatsuhiko and Igarashi Mikio, this “what if” is a set-up for black comedy. But Yoshida, whose films seldom obey genre rules, stirs in elements of thriller, social drama and even kaijū (monster) action. Credulity is sometimes strained and the murderers’ stories are not equally engaging, but the film goes unblinkingly into the darkness.
Also, it squarely addresses the consequences of the ultimate crime for both the perpetrators and the society in which they live. For the paroled six rehabilitation is a possibility, but so is a reversion to violence.
They are the tightly wound Fukumoto (Mizusawa Shingo), so starved for the air of freedom that he sticks his head out the window of Tsukisue’s car like a dog, the silent Kurimoto (Ichikawa Mikako), who lovingly and strangely buries dead small animals, the former yakuza Ono (Tanaka Min), who intimidates with his level stare and jagged facial scar, the smirking Sugiyama (Kitamura Kazuki), who can smell out another ex-con a mile away, and the smoldering Ota (the single-named Yuka), who finds the man of her dreams in Tsukisue’s stroke-victim dad (Kitami Toshiyuki).
Making the biggest impression, however, is Miyakoshi Ichiro (Matsuda Ryuhei), who is open to his new environment in ways the others are not. Though stiff and distant, like a visitor from another planet, Miyakoshi comes to befriend Tsukisue and date Aya (Kimura Fumino), a recent returnee from Tokyo who plays a fierce lead guitar to Tsukisue’s bass in a three-member band. Prickly to Tsukisue, who has had a crush on her since high school, Aya soon warms up to fellow outsider Miyakoshi.
Played by pop idol/actor Nishikido, Tsukisue begins as a nice-guy tour guide to his six charges but reveals a tougher side as their stay in the town lengthens – and they backslide to old ways.
Taking considerable liberties with the manga (the band, for example, is not in it), the film transitions from the gag comedy of the first half to the tense drama of the second through grounded character development, though not all of its six killers gain a third dimension.
Meanwhile, a googly-eyed monster from local folklore appears as a costumed local in an annual festival and looms as a huge statue over the town. Called Nororo, it serves as a metaphor for chthonic forces that doom the weak, the unlucky and the damned.
And the title’s “Scythian Lamb?” It refers to the ancient Central Asian myth of a plant whose fruit is living, permanently tethered, sheep. Severed from their mother plant, the sheep die. Something like humans cut off from their own humanity.
Yoshida Daihachi (b. 1963) entered TYO, a TV commercial production company, in 1987 and over the next two decades made many TV commercials, music videos, TV dramas and short films. His first feature film, the comedy Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! (2007) was selected for the Cannes Critics Week sidebar, as well as for the 10th Udine FEFF. Yoshida’s 2012 high school drama The Kirishima Thing was awarded three Japan Academy prizes, including Best Picture and Best Director. He followed up with Pale Moon, a drama about an embezzling bank employee played by Miyazawa Rie, that also scooped a shelfful of prizes, including the Tokyo International Film Festival’s Best Actress award for Miyazawa.
2007 – Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers!
2009 – The Wonderful World of Captain Kuhio
2010 – Permanent Nobara
2012 – The Kirishima Thing
2014 – Pale Moon
2017 – A Beautiful Star
2018 – The Scythian Lamb