By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
After making a more-than-respectable directorial debut with the small-scale 2016 drama Double Life, Yoshiyuki Kishi aims big with Wilderness, an expansive, wildly ambitious feature that, like his previous effort, still offers an intimate character study at its centre, except this time there are multiple journeys being explored. The end result is a movie so massive (304 minutes), that it had to be split into two parts, the first running 157 minutes, the second 147 minutes. Set over the years 2021 (Part One) and 2022 (Part Two) around Shinjuku, Tokyo, we see a city in economic downturn, despite the supposed success of the 2020 Olympics. Unemployment, especially amongst the youthful population, is reaching epidemic proportions, so much so that the number of suicides have skyrocketed, leaving whole sections of the nation devastated.
To combat a broken social welfare system, the government are trying to introduce and pass a Self Defence Bill, which would require debt-ridden students to pay off their loans by working in nursing care or the military for a set amount of time, giving them employment while slowly putting the country’s finances back into the black. The public see this as nothing more than government sanctioned slave labour, and has led to the formation of several rebel groups, who are going to increasingly violent extremes to make their point. Amongst all this we are introduced to Shinji Sawamura (Masaki Suda), a hot-tempered youth who has just been released from juvenile detention after serving three years for attempted murder.
Given an envelope of money and thrown to the wolves by his former captors, Shinji looks for his ex-partners in crime, particularly Ryuki Tachibana (Katsuya Kobayashi), who has looked over him for years, and Yuji Yamamoto (Yuki Yamada), who viciously set off a chain of events that landed Shinji in juvenile prison. This search leads to Shinji crossing paths with Kenji (Yang Ik-june), a Korean-Japanese in his late twenties who has found it hard trying to find his place since being forcibly taken to Japan from South Korea by his brutish father when he was ten. Extremely shy, and afflicted with a speech impediment, Kenji spends his time either working as a barber, or looking after his ailing, but still bullying, father. Both feel they are in a deep, desperate place, unable to fight back against elements that threaten to crush them. It is at this eventful meeting that the two encounter Horiguchi (Yusuke Santamaria), a retired boxer handing out flyers to promote his failing gym.
Seeing this as a possible avenue to find a sense of place and self-worth, Shinji and Kenji take up Horiguchi’s offer, and as they are put through their paces, the duo become close friends, but also forge separate paths that will test the strong bond they have established. As you can see, there is plenty going on, and I haven’t even mentioned Yoshiko (Akari Kinoshita), the streetwise young woman Shinji takes up with; Kyoko Kimizuka (Tae Kimura), the headstrong brains behind Taichi Miyagi (Kazuya Takahashi), who runs a nursing home that used to be a love hotel; Keizo Kawasaki (Kou Maehara), who organises a Suicide Prevention Festival, with the help of people such as students Makoto (Riku Hagiwara) and Keiko (Anna Konno); Baba (Denden), an elderly trainer hired by Horiguchi to help him train his latest arrivals; and Setsu (Aoba Kawai), a quiet middle-aged woman who has just started at the bar Horiguchi frequents.
This more than indicates how large the canvas Kishi is working on, which is an updating of the celebrated 1966 novel Aa, Koya by Shuji Terayama. Not wanting to sacrifice the scope of the story and the number of characters who play an important part in it, Kishi has aimed very high here, and has mostly triumphed, confidently moving from one plot thread to another without diminishing the emotional integrity of each individual, although I do wish he had developed the lives of Yoshiko, Kyoko and Setsu a little more. Kishi’s direction is superb, handling the quieter moments with carefully measured skill, while the boxing scenes are among the best ever put on screen. Kishi also gets first-rate performances from his large, talented cast.
The prolific Suda (who co-starred in Kishi’s Double Life) is again fantastic (in a performance that won him Best Actor at the Japanese Academy Awards), and has certainly excelled since gaining attention in the darkly brilliant The Light Shines Only There in 2014. Matching Suda is Yang (Breathless, The Poet and the Boy), who vividly brings Kenji to life. It is truly a testament to Suda and Yang’s abilities that they have been able to create two utterly distinctive characters. Other stand-outs are Santamaria (the Bayside Shakedown series, April Fools, The Stand-In Thief), Kinoshita (in her movie debut), Kimura (University of Laughs, All Around Us, The Unbroken), and Denden (Kabei: Our Mother, Cold Fish, Mumon: The Land of Stealth).
Wilderness is a film (or films) that wants to challenge an audience, but there is no doubt that its lengthy running time and multitude of plot threads and serious, relevant themes may deter many. But for those who want to sink their teeth into something substantial, made by a film-maker who isn’t afraid of being hugely ambitious or taking considerable risks, then this will prove to be a genuine breath of fresh air, and is head-and-shoulders above so much hollow product that fills our cinemas today.