Japanese Title: ニンゲン 合格
Romaji: Ningen Goukaku
Release Date: January 23rdt, 1999
Running Time: 109 mins.
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Writer: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Koji Yakusho, Kumiko Aso, Sho Aikawa, Lily, Shun Sugata, Ren Osugi, Yoriko Douguchi, Masahiro Toda, Hajime Inoue
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is better known in the west for his horror films thanks to titles like Cure, Pulse, and Retribution being more available than his dramas and crime thrillers. In fact he is adept at working in other genres and there is a large body of work from his v-cinema days during the 90’s missing to those of us outside Japan. Overall his best film is the drama Tokyo Sonata, a masterful portrait of the breakdown of a modern family. License to Live is another drama film with similar themes to Tokyo Sonata but from 1999, ten years prior, and with a lighter comic touch.
Yutaka Yoshii (Nishijima) has just awoken from a ten year coma caused when he was knocked off his bicycle by a man named Murota (Osugi). It comes as a shock to the hospital staff and Murota who can’t forget the story and paid for Yutaka’s medical bills but Yutaka is conscious and so Murota gives him 500,000 yen to put an end to it.
Yutaka’s family might be glad of his recovery but they have all separated having accepted the possibility he might never wake up. His parents are divorced and his sister is supposedly in America. The only person willing to take Yutaka in is Fujimori (Yakusho), an old college friend of his father who raises carp in a fish farm on the Yoshii’s family property.
With Fujimori’s help Yutaka begins to grow up but soon his family hear about his recovery. First to appear is his father Shinichiro (Sugata) who travels the globe and has consigned Yutaka to the past. Next is Yutaka’s sister Chizuru (Aso) who shows up on the fish farm with her fiancé Kasaki (Aikawa) but she doesn’t want to stick around. Finally Yutaka finds out about mother Sachiko (Lily) who is the only one to stick by him.
“Your new life is what counts,” others tell him but Yutaka wants to bring his family back together again, even if only for a moment.
Kiyosuhi Kurosawa’s family drama exhibits his typical wayward approach to genres and unique visual style. Séance wasn’t just a ghost story but a drama about frustrated ambitions. Bright Future was a messy mixture of murder and existentialism in an adventurous experimental film about the challenges and hopes of a younger generation.
There is a genre mix going on here. The dramatic idea behind this film is that Yutaka, mentally still a teen, has to grow up and come to terms with the fact that everybody has their own life and they need to grow and this is something he has to do himself. The way for him to do that is to regress to the happiest moment as a child and act out typical teenage tendencies along the way. The comedy comes from the dry humour in observing a twenty-four-year-old man doing this.
Nishijima physically relays trying to escape the pull of adolescence in his actions which are perfectly calculated to evoke stereotypical teenage behaviour. When first released from hospital Yutaka is either in his bedroom (complete with school uniform hanging up) lying askew or flopping on bed and doing nothing in particular like half-watching a shounen anime (which looked like Project AKO). When he ventures outside he is slouching around and looks like a sullen teenager, engaging in petty crimes and being a pain for Fujimori as played by familiar Kurosawa leading man, Yakusho. Fujimori, acts as a surrogate father to a grown man who is mentally still a teen. His solution to existential angst is to force Yutaka to grow up through typical rites of passage like driving lessons and visiting exotic massage parlours. Of course, teenage Yutaka resents this so it is all done with equal measures of cajoling and simply dragging him around.
The sight of a grown man being dragged about like a naughty boy is amusing but the moments that are most poignant and affecting are when Yutaka comes to a more mature level of understanding and deal with all of the changes in his life.
Indeed, all of the themes are displayed through mise-en-scene. Now Kurosawa has a distinct visual style and familiar mise-en-scene that is seen in all of the films I have seen. It can best be summed up as barren. It works in his horror film to create environments that become characters in a story. Scary characters who suggest the world is on the brink of collapse. The visuals here are used to suggest Yutaka’s jumbled and confused life has become without his family and, conversely, how unhealthy residing in the past can be. He returns to the family home which has been commandeered by Fujimori. The grounds have industrial waste on them, the house is a mess and strangers wander about it at the fish farm Fujimori runs and familiar streets are devoid of life and full of junk. The impressive camera movements in house 180 degree pan to capture people walking through rooms, seen in door and window frames reminiscent of the ghost attack in Loft but it also tracks the of dry comedy and moments of great emotion with equal skill.
All of the acting is perfect. His conversations with his mother. The testy but affectionate relationship between relationship with Chizuru. That long sequence, a medium close up on Nishijima, as he watches his father prepare to leave and breaks down into tears and seeks solace in a hug from Fujimori sticks in my mind as a great piece of acting and character development. People I recognise as Yakuza gangsters like Shun Sugata and Sho Aikawa (Eyes of the Spider, Heat After Dark, Dead or Alive 2) transform into the most useless and geeky of male figures. Kumiko Aso, a horror heroine from Pulse and Ring 0 is great as the flighty Chizuru. Lily who is dramatic actress with gravitas in Vital and Mushishi brings in a great performance as Sachiko, a bedrock of affection.
But it is the double-act between Yakusho and Nishijima which really got me as a vision of a male relationship that is both complex for the differences they have in age and outlook yet made simple by the connection they build. I’ve always been a big fan of Yakusho so I knew he would deliver an excellent performance but Nishijima was a real surprise. He was deliberately veiled in Zero Focus but here he has a sly comic edge and wells of emotion.
License to Live is definitely one of Kurosawa’s better films and I would recommend it to fans of Japanese drama. It might be slow or a little too dry for some but I found his direction is on the mark but it is his writing with its ability to shape a familiar human story into something different and unique. The performances are perfect, full of points of interest for anybody who follows these great talents as they transform into unfamiliar types. I don’t know what the ending meant but the journey was fulfilling, light-hearted yet poignant.