Millions of Japanese have become fans of things Korean, from weepy TV dramas to perky girl pop groups, since the start of the hanryu￣ (“Korean Wave”) popular-culture invasion over a decade ago. Many of the younger generation, however, have only a hazy awareness, if that, of the dark period between 1910 and 1945 when Japan ruled Korea as a colony.
Banmei Takahashi’s “Michi — Hakuji no Hito (Takumi: The Man Beyond Borders),” which exposes the inhumanity of that rule and celebrates the glories of traditional Korean ceramics, may not sell a lot of tickets to the hanryu￣ crowd, who are more interested in entertainment than history lessons.
I hope I’m mistaken: Takahashi, who got his start directing soft-core porn more than three decades ago, has since become a maker of historical dramas that earnestly attempt to get at the not always flattering truth about their subjects, be it a saintly Zen master (“Zen,” 2009) or a violent radical sect (“Hikari no Ame [Rain of Light],” 2001). Like these earlier films, “Michi” is plodding and overwrought, but similarly sincere and instructive.
Its real-life hero is Takumi Asakawa (1891-1931), who together with his brother Noritaka (1884-1964) championed Korean folk arts, particularly Joseon Dynasty pottery, at a time when Japanese attitudes toward Koreans commonly ranged from disgust to disdain.
The film, however, focuses on the friendship of Takumi (Hisashi Yoshizawa), who first goes to Korea as a young, idealistic forestry researcher, with Yee Chung Rim (Bae Soo Bin), a Korean who works at the research institute where Takumi is employed.
Seeing the devastation wrought on the local mountains by loggers out to only exploit, Takumi becomes determined to reforest them, but the variety of pine he wants to use does not easily grow in the depleted soil. He also takes up study of the Korean language and falls in love with Korean ceramics, especially a lustrous white glaze called hakuji in Japanese.
Assisting him in these endeavors is Chung Rim, reluctantly at first, then enthusiastically once he realizes that Takumi’s love and respect for the Korean culture and people is deep and real. One turning point comes in a streetcar when both men see a Japanese military officer angrily order an elderly Korean man out of his seat. Offering the man another, Takumi incurs the soldier’s wrath, but starts to win Chung Rim’s trust.
If this were all, the film might have become a newer version of the We-are-all-Asian-brothers propaganda Japan served up during the war. Instead, Takahashi, inspired by the Takayuki Emiya novel that gave the film its Japanese subtitle, shows in revealing detail how and why such a friendship was so difficult — and dangerous — for both sides.
Takumi is surrounded by fellow Japanese, including his short-fused boss and primly proper mother, who regard the locals with undisguised contempt (despite the colonial policy of imposing the Japanese language and customs on them in the name of “solidarity”). They see his Korean interests, be they cultural, professional or personal, as suspect or, when he starts wearing Korean clothes to show his support for Koreans slaughtered while nonviolently protesting Japanese rule, a freakish gesture.
Meanwhile, Chung Rim comes under fire for his friendship with Takumi. Is he a Japanese sympathizer, some around him wonder — or an outright traitor to the independence cause?
Looking back from a distance of seven decades and more, Takahashi views the actors and events of the period through a simplifying filter: The good guys glow with nobility and purity, the bad guys sneer and shout with cartoon villainy.
At the same time, he tries to give both Korean and Japanese perspectives equal weight, if not time. This is rather uncommon in films, both domestic and foreign, about Japan’s wartime occupation of Asia, which tend to privilege one side over the other.
You could argue that if Takumi had truly been on the side of his Korean friends, he would have taken a more active role in their struggles. That is, man the barricades instead of mount exhibitions of Korean pottery. But in his brief 40 years on the planet, he made a lasting impact with his work, while his character made a deep impression on his Korean friends. When he died in 1931, they asked to carry his coffin — a rare honor for a member of the widely hated Japanese ruling class.
“Takumi” is a strong, if literally minded, rebuke to xenophobes on both sides of the Japan Sea (or as the Koreans would have it, the East Sea). But none of its characters, including Takumi, foresee how the once yawning gap between the two countries would be closed not with pots, but with K-pop.