Yakusho Kōji — whose inimitably eclectic filmography stretches from the food porn of “Tampopo,” to the techno-dread “Pulse,” the fluid eroticism of “Warm Water Under a Red Bridge,” the nuclear dislocation of “Tokyo Sonata,” the paycheck of “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and far beyond — has been one of the world’s most vital actors for so long that it’s become easy to take his restless talent for granted. Writer-director Nishikawa Miwa is absolutely hellbent on making that harder, so much so that her latest feature long overstays its welcome as part of a well-intentioned effort to give its leading man as many at-bats as possible and show the full extent of his range. It should go without saying that Yakusho knocks every scene out of the park without breaking a sweat, but he can only circle the bases so many times before the movie around him begins to feel like batting practice.
“Under the Open Sky” has nothing whatsoever to do with baseball (and for such a lyrical character study, it’s also surprisingly light on overextended metaphors), but this winsome, shaggy portrait of an ex-Yakuza’s struggle to adjust to life after prison finds a number of other ways to exhaust itself. Yakusho stars as the stubborn Mikami, a former mob enforcer who’s reached the end of a 13-year murder sentence without changing his ways. The broken $3,000 wristwatch he throws away upon his release is definitely a metaphor, but not one that Nishikawa feels the need to belabor; Mikami’s sunken cheeks, Caesar haircut, and general uselessness to modern society is sufficient evidence of a man who’s served time much better than time has served him.
Mikami is a strange cat, and Yakusho inhabits him with the dislocated instincts of a rare animal released into the wild after its species was thought to have gone extinct. Mikami is not a “bad man” (his killing of a rival gang member was in defense of a woman he loved), but a childhood spent in the juvenile correctional system has long conditioned him to express himself through violence, even when he’s trying to express himself kindly. He believes that accepting help is a sign of weakness, that running away from a fight is a form of defeat, and that welfare is a jail sentence unto itself (“at least I didn’t have to feel small in prison,” he scoffs). But people accept the love they think they deserve, and that sentiment rings as true for a 60-year-old career criminal as it does for a teenage wallflower — maybe even more so.
From the pillowy white snow that puffs through the bars of Mikami’s cell to the rollicking trumpets that score his bus ride back to society, the world that Nishikawa has created for the character is softer and more sentimental than his situation might suggest; for a movie that opens with the same premise as the nihilist Yakuza noir “Pink Flower,” it’s certainly unexpected that “Under the Open Sky” often feels like it shares more in common with the likes of “Paddington 2.” Even in the bitter depths of winter, this Japan radiates with a palpable but secondhand sense of warmth, as if the whole film were being heated by a fireplace on the far side of a large room.
Society at large might not be willing to make room for an ex-con like Mikami, but many of the individuals he meets are eager to help in whatever small ways they can, even if they’re helping themselves at the same time. That’s especially true of ambivalent TV producer Tsunoda (Nakano Taiga), who’s persuaded that Mikami would make a good subject for a documentary show about his search for the geisha mother who abandoned him as a four-year-old boy. Does Tsunoda make time for Mikami because he cares, or because it’s his job? To an extent, the same question could be asked of Mikami’s career counselor, and even the wonderfully personable sex worker who spends a night with him at a pivotal moment on his journey back toward belonging.
In all of these cases, the answer doesn’t matter to Mikami so much as the feeling that attention imparts — “Isn’t it nice to be with people who appreciate you?” he muses at one point. But as nice as it is that he’s satisfied by that, the rest of us are liable to feel a bit shortchanged. The empathy Mikami receives from these people is directly correlated to the empathy he makes available in return, but “Under the Open Sky” spins in both directions so loosely that it starts to feel like a broken turnstile.
A Kore-eda Hirokazu acolyte whose literary dramas haven’t enjoyed the same degree of international success, Nishikawa’s latest feature displays much of the same patience and gentleness that has typified her mentor’s best work, but it’s also bogged down in the shagginess and unchecked sentimentality that characterizes his worst (“worst” being a relative term when it comes to Kore-eda). Much like Tsunoda, Nishikawa seems uncertain as to how Mikami’s situation might be shaped into a digestible story, and as much that uncertainty reflects Mikami’s place in society at a time when “the Yakuza business is failing,” the unruly humanity she’s looking for in “Under the Open Sky” is clouded by a plot structure that lines a shapeless vessel with a mess of tightly prescriptive scenes.
From the unlikely friendship that Mikami forges with a local market owner to his futile quest to pass Japan’s driving test, and from needless courtroom flashbacks to the amusing scene in which he squares off against the loud ruffians who live in the apartment below his (a standoff that Nishikawa stages like a round of “Tekken”), “Under the Open Sky” is a movie that seems entirely comprised of clashing subplots. Some passages smile through the broad comedy of a fish-out-of-water story about a character who’s spirited into the present from a more barbaric past (I’m not sure why “Encino Man” is the one that comes to mind), while others ache with the neo-realism of a more relevant film like “Nobody Knows,” while the exasperatingly overdone coda might as well be cobbled together from all of the saccharine histrionics that Nishikawa cut out from the rest of the story.
The answer that Mikiwa eventually receives to his life’s most pressing question — “Am I too unhealthy to live in society?” — is far too ambivalent a destination for the winding road we take to get there, even if it’s always a pleasure to watch Yakusho behind the wheel. By the time this thing is over, he gets to laugh through bloodied teeth, collapse into a sobbing heap on two separate occasions, display strength through weakness, and show off his well-maintained butt (on two separate occasions) as part of a heartfelt argument that recidivism is a collective responsibility. Yakusho never misses a beat; fittingly enough, even this movie’s greatest weaknesses are an opportunity for him to prove his strength.
“Under the Open Sky” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.