大和（カリフォルニア） 「Yamato (Kariforunia)」
Running Time: 75 mins.
Director: Daisuke Miyazaki
Writer: Daisuke Miyazaki (Screenplay)
Starring: Hanae Kan, Nina Endo, Reiko Kataoka, Mayumi Kato, Shuya Nishiji, Haruka Uchimura,
Yamato (California) is a coming-of-age tale from Daisuke Miyazaki, a graduate from Waseda University with a varied filmography consisting of indie films and experience working as an assistant director on commercial movies such as Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s family drama Tokyo Sonata (2008). Much like that film, he looks at people left trailing by the economic problems and the split in identities caused by different forces in contemporary Japan and he does so through one teenager’s rebellion against cultural apathy through the medium of Hip-Hop.
Yamato is a suburban town north of Tokyo. It is a place far from the bright lights of Tokyo, a place where the working class are still suffering from the economic hangover of the lost decade, a place where a small mall and a Don Quijote discount store are the teens hang out spots, and a place dominated by the US military because of the base there. Despite the money that comes from hosting the Americans, there is the whiff of living with the occupier in the film, a point made clear through the inclusion of a news clip about protests against the US base in Henoko, Okinawa. Indeed, the roar of planes and helicopters flying around offers a disturbing soundtrack to everyday life and security patrols roll near the fences and menace locals away. The cinematography from Akiko Ashizawa (she has worked with Kurosawa on Loft and Tokyo Sonata and Retribution / Sakebi) amply shows the working-class neighbourhoods, the faded glory and blandness of the town (a rusting Yamato Ginza sign in the shopping district), and the scar on the landscape that is the military base.
Reflecting the fractured landscape are the children growing up in the shadow of faulty economics and the military presence. Streetwise Japanese teens who take their fashion cues from Hip-Hop stars and congregate in public spaces to freestyle. However, just because they use an American art-form, it doesn’t mean they aren’t Japanese. Hip-Hop is beautiful like that. It is music that allows anyone anywhere to express themselves so long as they have the confidence, vocabulary, and imagination. These youngsters rap about their everyday lives in Japan, being caught in tough circumstances, and their roots. They find a way through combining two cultures to make their existence heard. Sakura is one of those teens.
Sakura is a moody teenage girl. She wants to become a musician like the American rappers she admires. Her room is adorned with posters of the Wu-Tang Clan and Hanae Kan plays up to the role well as she walks around with a cool-girl strut and a sullen expression. Her half-mumbled freestyles paint her as a “yellow thug” and she picks fist fights with girls she used to know at school. She isn’t truly a thug, just lashing out at the world since she’s stuck in dullstown and refuses to conform like others and while she does not have any idea how to get out she is determined to sing. She’s angry and rebellious and spends most of her time by herself in a junkyard where she pens rhymes or an internet cafe where she uploads beats.
That would be enough for some films but Daisuke Miyazaki makes her believably more complex as a character. She may like to hang out in a junkyard, have working-class roots, and come from a household run by a single-mother but there is little deprivation and while there might not be much space in the family home (Sakura’s room is separated from her brother Kenzo’s by a blanket), there certainly no squalor. It looks comfortable. Sakura’s mother Kiko (Reiko Kataoka) works two jobs, a clothes shop during the day and ORIGIN, a bento place during the night and still provides love as well as emotional and financial support to her children while her older-brother Kenzo (Haruka Uchimura) is a good-natured otaku with a thing for models and vocaloids and a hit app that could bring money in. Uchimura makes him funny to follow, especially the way he physically shies away from Sakura’s Hip-Hop friends. Sakura also works in a traditional Japanese restaurant rather than McDonald’s and she knows where the shrines are.
Hip-Hop could be the thing that gets her to become confident and when she meets Rei, the half-Japanese half-American daughter of her mother’s American soldier boyfriend who is visiting from San Francisco for the summer, things start falling into place plot-wise and in terms of character arcs.
Sakura dislikes her immediately, but Rei’ s familiarity with American Hip-Hop becomes a bridge between the two girls as they spend fun times together and we see a little of what is going on under Sakura’s tough exterior as Rei coaxes out Sakura’s dreams as they argue over things. Nina Endo plays Rei as an ingénue, all polite and cute exterior with an American accent but reveals there’s a fire to that girl that comes out in an argument.
The key to Sakura’s growth is understanding herself and key to getting in touch with her authentic self is Hip-Hop (and some psychedelic rock) and she goes through trials and tribulations that get her to see what is going on around her and her place in the world. Hip-Hop allows her to express herself and talk to the world and the world talks back. Through telling her story she makes a connection with others and beats her anger and we know she is in a happier place.
Overall, this is an earnest and empathetic look at a teenage girl trying to discover herself through music. It’s a universal tale and easy to access thanks to Miyazaki’s direction/writing and it gives a unique take on modern Japanese youth and issues surrounding US bases, neatly combining a personal story with a national one whilst throwing in some real rappers. The fantastic performances of the actors sell the film and make it enjoyable.