Miyamoto (Japan, 2019) [JFTFP 2021]

Other than good filmmaking, what makes a film especially satisfying? A good ending. Tetsuya Mariko’s Miyamoto starts with a good ending: a couple getting married. But more than this good ending, Miyamoto actually presents a positive approach towards human life and violence, an attitude that is quite rare recently due to the prevalence of Hollywood cynicism. But what Mariko did may have surpassed Hollywood cynicism by working through the doubts of futility of direct action. While it might get uncomfortable at times, Miyamoto is clear in its mission to be uplifting, and even cathartic.

We are introduced to a couple who are seeking their parents’ approval to get married: the titular Miyamoto (Sosuke Ikematsu), a young salaryman who has fallen for an older acquaintance, Yasuko (Yu Aoi). The couple is introduced in striking fashion. Miyamoto has lost his front teeth in a fight, and kept mum about this with his parents. Yasuko, on the other hand, has shocked both her and Miyamoto’s parents with her pregnancy. But the couple is resolved in their decision, despite the shame that they might get from their families. From here on, their story is told in sets of flashbacks, or parallel montages of their life in the present, missing front teeth and pregnancy, and how they get to that point.

It’s use of flashbacks has very subtle transitions that makes it seem that the couple’s past is overlapping with the present. You can sense how the film tries to carefully unveil the narrative through visual hints, but its shifts from one sequence to another are done roughly. However, this editing roughness adds to the conflicted emotions that the film delivers: a flaw that actually works for the film. This roughness helps depict the past of the couple as a very complicated one and why it made sense that they can’t just talk to their parents about their condition.

Miyamoto is not an easy film. It takes high caliber actors like Ikematsu and Aoi to depict such emotional extremes. There’s no doubt about their capabilities, as proven by their already considerable filmographies of great works. But Miyamoto is a director’s film, more than anything. It shares its texture with Mariko’s Destruction Babies (2016) that violence is not used as mere spectacle but as an aid for narrative exposition. But the depiction of violence in Miyamoto is of a different range, whereas in Destruction Babies, violence is almost so straightforward that it becomes thematic. Violence in Miyamoto is expressed in layers and in different intensities in different instances and exposes how the couple progress as human beings.

The past sequences present Miyamoto and, especially, Yasuko in a very vulnerable state. We are not presented with ideal characters, but flawed people doing their best to get by. As flawed and vulnerable types, Miyamoto and Yasuko are always prone to being taken advantage of. First, there is a time in Yasuko’s life when she’s merely using Miyamoto to get rid of her ex-boyfriend. Then, later on, Yasuko is violated by the son of Miyamoto’s big client. The last event really dents their relationship and causes them to doubt their capabilities to turn their life together around.

As mentioned, Miyamoto’s depiction of violence goes beyond spectacle to bring hope rather than despair. Since we are first exposed to the couple’s happy present, we begin to wonder how they made it through their challenges in the past. The violence that they experienced, and the similar violence that they need to get through affords a window for empathy. In this respect, Miyamoto departs from Destruction Babies in its attempts to present a less cynical take on violence, which is quite rare to most recent films. Imay have expressed a similar take on Joe Odagiri’s They Say Nothing Stays the Same (2019), but compared to Mariko’s attitude towards violence, Odagiri’s film is more lukewarm to say the least. Miyamoto does not just attempt to find nuance in violence, it almost sees it as an affirmative gesture towards life. This results in one of the most cathartic narrative resolutions I have seen in contemporary cinema.

Rare is a contemporary film that expresses hope, let it be taken as naïve or just plain stupidity. Miyamoto, thankfully is neither naïve nor stupid. It’s a film that not only understands the complexity of contemporary life and human relations but also how violence dominates social structures and is enacted to the vulnerable. Within the limit of its social reality, Miyamoto presents a window for courage in the midst of hopeless situations.

Miyamoto was streamed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme from February 19 to March 2 2020.

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