By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
An intriguing mix of low-key comedy and uneasy drama, the oddly titled The Scythian Lamb engages in a number of ways, asking audiences to think about the societal structure they have created, particularly in the way we treat, view, and respect one another. Set in the port city of Uobuka, we are introduced to city employee Hajime Tsukisue (Ryo Nishikido), who has been instructed by his boss Ryosaku Kamisaki (Shinsuke Suzuki) to welcome six new residents, but is given no information about them. They are Rieko Ota (Yuka), Katsushi Sugiyama (Kazuki Kitamura), Kiyomi Kurimoto (Mikako Ichikawa), Hiroko Fukumoto (Shingo Mizusawa), Shigeru Ono (Min Tanaka), and Ichiro Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda).
Arriving separately, Tsukisue sees that each person has been escorted by ominous looking functionaries, while their personalities vary wildly. It is only after he has carried out this task that Kamisaki informs his assistant that the six new arrivals are all ex-convicts, released from prison after serving sentences for murder. This is all part of a regional Parolee Resettlement Project organised by City Hall, where a local government will act as guarantor for a prisoner, who will then have to live in that town for a period of ten years, and if the person stays out of trouble during that time, the parole will end and the ex-convict will be free.
Subsidised incentives are in place for local governments who take up the offer, and for places such as Uobuka, which are slowly dying due to both an ageing population and its younger community leaving to work in the bigger cities, it is a chance the Mayor and his associates don’t want to pass up. Moral complications ensue when officials don’t inform the new residents’ employers and hosts of their criminal background, wanting to walk that fine line between a citizen’s right to know and a right to privacy. Also arriving on the scene is Fumi (Fumino Kimura), an old classmate who Tsukisue had a crush on during that time, and he realises that those feelings haven’t dissipated.
The two, along with Isao Sudo (Satoru Matsuo), have a reunion of sorts, reforming a band they used to play in all those years ago. Miyakoshi, who is more open to the prospect of living in the seaside town, befriends Tsukisue, but surprisingly begins a relationship with Fumi, and raises questions within Tsukisue as to whether or not to tell her about her new boyfriend’s dark past. Based on the 2011 manga by Tatsuhiko Yamagami and Mikio Igarashi, the film adaptation delves into its subject matter with intelligence and wry humour, and screenwriter Masahito Kagawa wades through these murky waters with skill and cool compassion, giving each character a base for both film-maker and cast to mould something memorable out of.
Daihachi Yoshida, who loves exploring the moral ambiguity inherent in both the individual and the rules the larger community are supposed to abide by, in terrific films such as Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! (2007), The Kirishima Thing (2012), Pale Moon (2014) and A Beautiful Star (2017), deftly moves between comedy, drama and thriller, once more showing what a talented director he is. Performances are all pitch perfect, with everyone knowing when to go for laughs, or to play it straight. Nishikido (from the J-pop band Kanjani8 and starred with the band in the amusing Eight Ranger films) effectively underplays Tsukisue, while award winning actor Matsuda (Before We Vanish, The Mohican Comes Home, The Great Passage) is wonderfully deadpan, and handles Miyakoshi’s character arc masterfully.
After showing his softer side recently in The 8-Year Engagement, Kitamura is back playing the kind of role we know him for, with a measured turn that never goes over-the-top. Also worth mentioning is Tanaka as ageing ex-gangster Ono, the wonderful Ichikawa (Wandering Home, ReLife, The Third Murder) as Kurimoto, and Tamae Ando (Erased, the Midnight Diner films, Let’s Go Jets!), as Ono’s dry-cleaning employer. With its title (which is explained at the start) and a local folklore tale proving highly symbolic to what is happening in Uobuka, The Scythian Lamb is totally absorbing, keeping the audience on its toes as the tone and plot change in unexpected ways, and captivatingly balances between the thought-provoking and the genuinely entertaining.