17 Jul 2019
21st February 2018
Where I Belong: film review
94% of Japan’s population now resides in urban areas. This radical demographic shift contains a hidden violence. Communities are hollowed out and old traditions and ways of life severed from reality.
Where I Belong begins with an explicit act of violence. Its protagonist, Izumi (played by Kento Hayashi – star of the Netflix adaptation of the hit novel Hibana), flees from the urban underbelly into very much the middle of nowhere, pushed out of a truck into the mountains of Miyazaki.
Stumbling through the lush and dramatic southern Kyushu landscape Izumi happens upon a motorbike in the middle of the road. He is about to make off with it before the pleas of an injured old lady, Suma, in the bushes stop him. He starts staying at her house and, once he’s failed to steal the bike a second time, assumes the identity no one quite believes of a formerly estranged grandson. As the Japanese title (Shabondama – soap bubble) suggests, Izumi has floated through life. He now finds himself a member of a community that is itself fragile.
What do grandparents do to grandchildren, even fake ones? They feed them, and food is lovingly depicted in this film. In an early scene, at a gathering of Suma's friends each encourages Izumi to try the food she has brought: he scoops up the wild boar, homegrown shiitake and other local produce voraciously. Food even provides the outlet for the start of Izumi’s metaphorical penance, as an almost archetypically gruff old man, Shige, employs him to forage (seemingly highly prized) root vegetables in the mountain forests.
The produce is to be sold at the Heike festival, which we learn about at the same gathering of elderly ladies, full of all the sincere incredulity you’d expect that Izumi doesn’t know about the local festival. It’s the progression of this event (who in this town isn’t involved in organising it?), where a legendary romance is reenacted, that provides the real theatre for Izumi’s redemption. A non-love story with a local girl pushes the plot forward gently.
Where I Belong is full of the tropes of life in provincial Japan. Things progress very slowly, even cyclically. Director Shinji Azuma is unafraid to show us almost the same scene twice of Izumi waking up and eating a huge rice ball. Much of the pleasure of the film (having lived in Japan) for me came from its referential nature. But Where I Belong is full of acute observations – Izumi stealing a cigarette from a packet kept in memory of her husband on the altar in Suma’s house – which broaden its appeal.
This grasp of rural life and observational poignancy are the film’s strength. Several cartoonish flashbacks to the Izumi’s errant city life don’t quite convince, and the innate parochial drama of the festival moves more than the film’s most outwardly dramatic scene. Where I Belong’s other strength is that it is sweet, but in a way that captures something about the characters’ own sentimentality about their town and habits of life.
I saw Where I Belong as part of The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018 – Un(true) Colours: Secrets and Lies in Japanese Cinema, running nationwide until 28 March. Please learn more details of all films and locations here.
Oh Lucy! may also be of note to former JETs. A depressed office worker finds salvation in the form of John (played by Josh Harnett), a teacher in a run-down Tokyo English school. When he abruptly leaves Japan, she sets out on a journey of self-discovery.