AFI FEST 2020: Under the Open Sky (Subarashiki Sekai) Review – What a Wonderful Life

A former gangster wants to leave the life of crime is a story we’ve seen time and time again. Yet writer/director Miwa Nishikawa upends these expectations to paint a much more complicated picture of a man who strives for change, but circumstances never allow him to change. Ultimately, not only is Under the Open Sky a sympathetic portrait of a former member of the yakuza, but it’s also a social commentary about systematic oppression and the many contradictions embedded in society once freed. Under the Open Sky follows Mikami, a middle-aged former member of the yakuza who is released after serving thirteen years in prison for murder. Now, Mikami must reacclimate to his new life as a free man under the open sky.

No matter how hard Mikami (Kôji Yakusho) tries to reacclimate to society, he can never catch a break. Much like other parts of the world, ex-convicts don’t qualify for social welfare, and their criminal records prevent them from landing a sustainable paying job. Nishikawa does an excellent job of making you understand how someone like Mikami wants to change, but society is forcing him to choose between a life of struggle or going back to a life of crime. Not to mention, Mikami is morally stuck between a rock and a hard place, caught between trying to do the right thing or conforming to society. From preventing other gangsters from picking on a businessman to a grocery store owner who accuses him of shoplifting, the film tests Mikami’s morals on a near-constant basis. Nothing is black and white in Open Sky, Mikami’s decisions are never without merit. 

These felons need a little help, and the current system makes it hard for them to reform. It paints Mikami in a lonely light, but you find out that he isn’t as lonely as he initially thought. Thus, it shows that gangsters and Yakuza members aren’t all necessarily evil, but as human beings with feelings and emotions. There are plenty of moments of kindness and tenderness that Mikami displays, but he’s still a man who drifts between a gentle nature and utter rage. It’s a role that’s eloquently brought to life by the great Kôji Yakusho (13 Assassins, Shall We Dance?). It’s not just about the physicality and subtle nuances of Yakusho’s performance, but palpable rage and frustration that’s internally smoldering within him. Yet through it all, he brings rare dignified humanity to this complex character. 

Unfortunately, at 126 minutes, the film is sorely in need of a tighter edit. There are several storylines written in the film to help humanize Mikami, but they never fully pay itself off in the end. Not to mention, Mikami’s quest to find a job does become repetitive after a while. 

Despite all of that, Under the Open Sky is still a meaningful drama featuring a remarkably touching performance by Kôji Yakusho. Although redemption films have been done to death, Miwa Nishikawa takes this age-old theme and turns it into a solid conversation-starter about the systematic oppression of ex-convicts in society. A topic that not only affects Japan but other nations all over the world as well.

Rating: 4/5 atoms

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