‘Yamato (California)’: Film Review

Daisuke Miyazaki’s ‘Yamato (California)’ revolves around a young wannabe rapper grappling with identity issues in a nondescript Japanese town.

A young, rebellious Japanese rapper grapples with her own social and cultural dilemmas in Yamato (California), Japanese director Daisuke Miyazaki’s second feature. Set in a Japanese city where a vast U.S. military base looms very large next door, Miyazaki’s film chronicles a young hip-hop aficionado’s rite of passage as an allegory for Japan’s long-running, conflicted relationship with its intruder-protector, big-brother of an ally.

While mischievously described in the title credits as “A Daisuke Miyazaki joint,” Yamato (California) actually offers sober, reflective drama throughout its two-hour running time. Having followed its premiere at Montreal’s New Cinema festival with stops at Tallinn, Singapore and Hong Kong, the film could surf right into programs dedicated to young, politically conscious indie cinema. The film’s contemplation of cultural nationalism is especially timely today in an age where simplistic jingoism seems ready to rear its ugly head around the world.

The Bottom Line

A layered rite of passage.

At the center of Yamato (California) is Sakura (the Korean-Japanese actor Hanae Kan), who belies her genteel-sounding name — it’s Japanese for cherry blossoms — by acting like, in her own words, “a real yellow sulking thug.” While leading a humdrum existence amid the nondescript urban sprawl just north of Tokyo, Sakura wears the swagger of a street-wise hip-hop artist — or at least she tries, as she struggles to pen some tunes and rhymes to go with her persona.

While hailing from a single-parent working-class family, Sakura isn’t surrounded by misery. Her mother (Reiko Kataoka) is unfailingly warm and caring when not away working double shifts to make ends meet, while her brother Kenzo (Haruka Uchimura) is a geek with a heart of gold. But Sakura views such domestic calm as provincial and tedious, and is bored by things as mundane as the shopping malls and guitar-playing buskers she sees in town every day.

To Miyazaki’s credit, Sakura is hardly a simplistic caricature of a wayward delinquent. Perhaps alluding to Japan’s love-hate relationship with the U.S., the writer-director shaped Sakura as a creature of intense contradictions. While trying to establish her own self-esteem by working within an American musical form, she also is adamant about her own cultural roots — as shown in the way she chastises her brother for speaking broken Japanese at the same time as she frowns over yet another meal of takeaway sushi.

Her personal and artistic breakthrough arrives in the shape of Rei (Nina Endo), the daughter of her mother’s new American boyfriend. Bickering and then eventually bonding with the short-haired, porcelain-skinned gamine — who turns out to be much more experienced in the ways of the world than her innocent appearance suggests — Sakura is forced to reflect on her own frustrations, aspirations and delusions.

Through Sakura’s and Rei’s past and present travails, Miyazaki offers a glimpse of a new generation battling with identity issues that their elders have glossed over during better and more stable times. With the help of DP Akiko Ashizawa, Miyazaki manages to capture and humanize his characters’ quotidian existence and the bizarre landscapes framing their lives: a pagoda sitting in the middle of a shopping park, or the vast military facility cutting through the roads people travel every day.

Indeed, the ominous presence of that alien, American airfield — both seen and heard as fighter jets zoom overhead — remains a specter hovering over the characters, and it’s under such doom and gloom that Yamato (California) thrives with nuanced human drama.

Production company: Deep End Pictures
Cast: Hanae Kan, Nina Endo, Reiko Kataoka
Director-screenwriter: Daisuke Miyazaki
Producers: Kotaro Date, Daisuke Miyazaki
Executive producers: Jacob Yocum-Piatt, Eiki Matsui, Tomoya Narita
Director of photography: Akiko Ashizawa
Production designer: Nodoka Takashima
Costume designer: Fuminori Usui
Editors: Ryoma Hirata
Music: Cherry Brown
Casting: Kumiko Hosokawa
Sales: Deep End Pictures

In Japanese
119 minutes