Film Review: ‘Yamato (California)’

Maggie Lee
Variety

Depicting the underbelly of a Japanese town dominated by a U.S. airbase, “Yamato” is like a kick in the butt to the apolitical and inward-looking attitudes of Japan’s film industry and domestic market. Evoking the economic and psychological burdens of America’s military presence on a rudderless female wannabe-rapper, writer-director Daisuke Miyazaki asks whether his compatriots are colonized within their own country. Gleefully abrasive and opinionated about Japanese and Americans alike, Miyazaki dissects his generation’s cultural angst as few of his contemporaries have done. So despite a disappointingly ending, the film deserves a release in the U.S. to represent the Japanese civilian view in the ongoing debate of American foreign policy.

Yamato, a town in Kanagawa, near Tokyo, is home to Atsugi Airbase, the largest U.S. naval base in the Pacific Ocean. Although Yamato is the ancient, but still widely used name for Japan, it has an ironic ring considering how the local residents regard their own soil as a “special zone” of California. This being Miyazaki’s hometown, nothing escapes his intense scrutiny, beginning with a long take of a giant junkyard, and closing in on high school dropout Sakura (Hanae Kan) rapping to herself inside. Though she’s a lousy rapper, her lyrics (“living in a radioactive, contaminated country, dodging the brainwashing…”) strip away Japan’s Olympic publicity image.

When she goes home, it’s just another dump: Only a curtain divides her bedroom from her geeky brother Kenzo’s space, while garbage and used appliances pile up in the backyard. These snippets of suburban life may recall Yu Irie’s “8000 Miles” trilogy about rappers stuck in the drab town of Saitama. However, while Irie’s works are harmless, offbeat slacker comedies, there’s more indignation to Yamato’s sense of squalor, as the town’s residents seem enervated by the sense of dependency reinforced by the foreign presence.

Sakura’s single mom, Kiko (Reiko Kataoka), is dating an American G.I. named Abby Goldman, whose daughter, Rei (Nina Endo), is visiting from America. Since Kiko has to work, she asks Sakura and Kenzo to take good care of Rei.

Although Rei hails from San Francisco, she’s cheerful, courteous, and speaks perfect Japanese. Her host family’s insistence on treating her like a foreigner, Kiko’s desperation to please, and Kenzo’s euphoria over rare female company are both funny and pathetic. At first, Sakura is downright hostile, but it doesn’t take long for her icy pose to dissolve, after discovering Rei knows a thing or two about hip-hop.

A lively, unpredictable dynamic develops as they hang out at a cheap general-goods chain called Don Quixote, a comic cafe, and a local mall — all dives Sakura takes for granted as sad proof of her downscale existence. Nonetheless, they’re novelties to Rei. Still, there are limits to their superficial cultural exchange, so it’s not surprising that their ad hoc friendship could easily turn sour. When Sakura is uneasy about rapping for Rei, the latter, in a drunken fit, accuses her new friends of being copying America, with no original modern culture of their own.

Since Miyazaki spent his childhood in Chicago but later returned to Yamato, Sakura and Rei could be viewed as two sides of his own self-image, which in turn reflects the post-war identity crisis many Japanese experience. Sakura’s description of the elusive Abby, who never appears onscreen, as “like a friend or father” who taught her about hip hop — but who also uses her family, and even dumps his own daughter on them — symbolizes Japan’s ambivalent feelings towards America as a protector and freeloader.

The plot could have packed a more provocative punch when it added a Korean girl gang and a homeless community into the mix, but instead, it ties things up in a neat, heartwarming bow that proves out-of-character and out-of-tune with it’s general edginess.

Kan, a 26-year-old Japanese-Korean who made her debut in Seijun Suzuki’s “Pistol Opera,” was once accused of being anti-Japanese because she played an ethnic Korean terrorist in “Pure Asia.” This controversial past combined with her aloof image makes her an ideal choice for the cranky, neurotic misfit. Rising British-Irish-Japanese actress-model Endo laces her cuteness with just the right dose of spite.

Best known for her cinematography in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films, Akiko Ashizawa refrains from a stylized, polished approach to convey a warts-and-all realism. Sound designers Hwang Yong-chang and Yasuhiro Morinaga’s live recordings of deafening sounds of fighter jets hover over almost every outdoor scene, and form a vexing whir even when the characters are indoors, echoing longtime complaints of noise disturbances by residents near airbases all over the country.

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