Release Date: April 08th, 2006
Running Time: 119 mins.
Director: Miwa Nishikawa
Writer: Miwa Nishikawa (Screenplay),
Starring: Joe Odagiri, Teruyuki Kagawa, Yoko Maki, Keizo Kanie, Tomorowo Taguchi, Hirofumi Arai, Masato Ibu, Pierre Taki, Mayu Kitaki,
Sway is an innocuous title but it harbours many powerful meanings. It refers to memories, one of the most profound elements that make a person unique. It refers to the ever changing personalities of people. It also refers to the sibling relationship at the centre of the film. These elements are something which writer and director Miwa Nishikawa crafts a film about in a story where the return of a younger brother to his hometown results in his older brother going on trial for murder. What is ostensibly a mystery/crime thriller becomes a dissection of modern male pride and the strain that society puts on people as revealed in a riveting character drama.
Takeru Hayakawa (Joe Odagiri) is our central protagonist. His memory, his relations with people, and his fluctuating sense of self and perceptions of others are the swaying element at the centre of this story. When we first meet him we see he is a fashion photographer based in Tokyo. He returns to his small hometown to attend his mother’s funeral. His appearance is showy. If he wanted to make a startling impression upon the people of his hometown, he couldn’t have done a more thorough job. He heads to the small and dull family gas station in an old Ford Falcon¹ and makes his father’s employees work for him. He arrives at the family home late, dressed in an expensive loud red leather outfit jacket and trousers, red streaks in his hair. He stands out amid the urban sprawl, a red streak in a grey and green world. He enters the funeral proceedings while they are underway. At the wake, he talks about his work with impressed relatives who have not seen him in years. He isn’t shy about showing his new look.
While the small town folk Takeru left behind are dazzled his father Isamu (Masato Ibu) is less than impressed and sees another story in the bluster –this is a son who has abandoned the family for the bright lights of Tokyo, this is a son who has rejected a safe job at the gas station for a shaky job in fashion, this is a son who has used the occasion of his mother’s to disrespect him. Soon the two are arguing and a fight threatens to break out but older brother Minoru (Teruyuki Kagawa) is the one who gets them to stop.
Minoru is the brother who stayed behind in the small town to run the gas station with his father. Minoru is the one who organised the funeral and runs the family home since their mother’s death. Minoru is the peacemaker, the one who his father harasses and henpecks. Minoru is now set to inherit a future defined by everything Takeru rejects, the family, the small town and small ambitions and the small people including Chieko (Yoko Maki), Takeru’s ex-girlfriend, who is now working at their family gas station.
Isamu employed Chieko in an effort to get Minoru a wife. Minoru is timid and not as sexy or charismatic as Takeru but popular around town because he is good-natured and hard working. Whatever the situation, no matter how brow-beaten he is by his father or gas-station customers, Minoru keeps a smile on his face and does his best to make everyone happy. He’d be a decent catch for anyone but Chieko has serious history with Takeru.
Both Minoru and Chieko seem to get along well but Takeru feels a little envy over his brother’s relationship with his ex and decides to test how strong that relationship is after he offers Chieko a ride in his car to her apartment. This late night drive results in the two rekindling their old passion. For Takeru, it was a momentary lapse in brotherly loyalty spurred by wavering feelings for people from his past but Chieko has other ideas. She too is sick of small town life and wanted to follow Takeru to Tokyo but backed out. She has regrets, something she keeps hidden from everyone. She lets it all out the next day when, spurred on by a request from Minoru, all three go together to Hasumi Gorge, somewhere the brothers visited as children. It is a beautiful area in the mountainous with a river cutting through the middle and an old suspension bridge hanging high above.
Takeru, in an effort to distance himself from Chieko, crosses the bridge. She soon follows with Minoru, seemingly afraid of the height and secureness of the bridge, following closely behind her. He offers a helping hand to Chieko as she stumbles on the bridge but she angry rejects Minoru’s approach and she lets her true feelings be known. Minoru is stunned by the hatred and reacts angrily, pushing Chieko down onto the bridge. Takeru is busy taking photographs of flowers but turns around to see Chieko fall to her death, Minoru still on the bridge.
Minoru is soon on trial for murder and Takeru scrambles to make sense of everything. The process for Takeru is a painful reliving of memories both old and recent and facing things he has constantly avoided.
In Japan, there is the idea that siblings of the same sex will harbour intense feelings of love and hate and that is on display here as we see behind the masks of everyday people. Miwa Nishikawa digs deep into her characters and utilises this notion to concoct a story where the selective memory of Takeru and feelings felt towards his family hold the key to saving his brother.
Although there is a trial at the heart of the movie Miwa Nishikawa deprives us of an objective view of the key scene. We never really know what happens. Instead what we see of the death of Chieko from Takeru’s point of view and we see it multiple times, coloured differently as his memories sway, blown about by his own personal feelings – fraternal loyalty makes it an accident, shock over lies makes it murder.
For Takeru, the past and family duty (as symbolised by the dour gas station and bellicose father) is a miserable thing he has fled so he can take up life as a glamorous fashion photographer and his act of returning was a way of proving to others how successful he is. Eagle-eyed viewers although the audience might be able to see through the image he projects since he’s low on gas when he first arrives and doesn’t spend cash too easily. He too is aware of the act. Finally getting back to his hometown initiates a series of moments and meetings that awaken feelings of guilt, not least trying to understand his father and seeing the frustrated ambitions of Minoru and Chieko who stayed behind to fulfil familial duties. Confronting this past is not easy, especially when Minoru and Chieko reveal the damage they feel having to live in a small choking town which has limited their future, something which Takeru fled. This constant reassessment of positions by Takeru is quite affecting because it is easy to relate to the emotions revealed by the characters and it is also powerful, changing the course of the film.
The acting is pitch-perfect. The actors pivot between emotions ably as the script strips back the façades of the characters, their 建前 tatemae, and reveals the true desires driving people, their 本音 honne. People circle each other, suppressing their resentment and anger, occasionally bouncing into each other when they can no longer hold back, and then they look at the results. It is pretty potent stuff and you can feel the tension between characters as their interactions and dialogue frequently edge on but self-consciously hold back from the conflicts in their hearts so as not to upset the delicate social balance established in their small town. When that balance is upset the consequences can feel devastating and the truths people deliver to each other are stunning. It is a tense build-up leavened only by an at-times cheeky performance by the great Keizo Kanie whose antics as a lawyer uncle can be flamboyant as well as stern but even behind his wise and amusing act is a man with his own grievances.
What makes this work is that the great acting is paired up with great writing. Miwa Nishikawa loves her characters. She draws out their inner darkness, their fragility and fear as well as their good-points. She lets us see behind the masks that men put up in Chieko’s rejection of Minoru and his subsequent trial. She gives us a glimpse into the fear a young woman has in facing the idea that her life will revolve around creating family and never experiencing anything exciting. She shows us that Takeru’s attempts to dodge society’s expectations and become an individual apart from everyone else has its flaws and that both sides must compromise for something healthier to emerge.
It all builds to a powerful open ending where a flood of memories force Takeru to grow up and fully face his past. When the old movies are played and you see Odagiri’s reaction and the final sequence, I defy you not to get emotional. This film will frustrate those hoping to see a police procedural but stay in the mind of those willing to accept that not everything can be concrete or explained away easily.
¹ This website identifies the car as a Ford Falcon Wagon 1964
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