I used to attract proselytizers, usually some variety of Christian, when I was thumbing around the United States in the early 1970s. Unlike most drivers who offered me rides, they didn’t want a captive ear for their personal confessions or rants. Instead they relentlessly quizzed me on the state of my soul. Was I twice-born — or hell-bound?
The Japanese, as Ryuhei Yoshino’s debut feature “Akaboshi” (literal translation: “Morning Star”) shows us with insider precision, sell religion differently. When a single mom (Park Romi) and her tween son Tamotsu (Aren) are approached on a train platform by members of the Guiding Star cult, they are offered not pamphlets threatening perdition, but kindness and sympathy.
Mom, who is still desolated after being abandoned by her husband several months earlier, collapses with tears of relief. She has found people who understand and care — that is, the blessed opposite of her hectoring, self-centered sister, all she has left of family.
The scene changes and Mom, now a firm believer, is proselytizing her neighbors, Tamotsu in tow, but meets with only rebuffs until Kanon (Vlada), the teenaged daughter of the couple who run the cult, tells Tamotsu to “step up to the door and say the lines” in place of Mom. Taking the girl’s advice, Tamotsu and his mother are soon reeling in lonely souls like so many hungry bass. But one day a boy from Tamotsu’s class catches him delivering his spiel, looking and acting the godly little goody-goody. Paradise has just been lost.
Screened in the Japanese Eyes section of last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, “Akaboshi” is over-long at 140 minutes, but it is also precisely, generously captures its characters and their world.
Yoshino, who also scripted, edited and produced the film, gives us people who, even within the cult’s all-embracing bubble, cannot help being human — that is, craving respect and recognition (Mom) or money and freedom (Kanon) or any other of the world’s goods, whether forbidden or no. Instead of a crusading docu-drama with an agenda, “Akaboshi” is a nonpreachy essay on how even the Lord’s elect (or, if you will, brainwashed) are not all that different from the rest of us.
The hardest to decipher, however, is Tamotsu, who plays the obedient son with Mom and the other adult cult members but is a bully at school — until the above-mentioned bullied classmate turns the tables. As played by veteran child actor Aren, Tamotsu gazes at the world with the watchful, appraising eyes of a boy forced to grow up too fast by his irresponsible father and unstable mother, while yearning to be an ordinary kid, for bad and good. Though his character nearly always wears a mask, Aren is a pitch-perfect natural.
Similarly good, but in quite a different way, is Vlada as the enigmatic Kanon, whose presence as a Westerner in the otherwise all-Japanese cult is accepted but never completely explained. An amateur cast for what Yoshino in an interview described as “the disillusioned pouty aura” of the typical adolescent, she is nonetheless effortlessly in synch with her more experienced child costar.
Also making her film debut is Park as Tamotsu’s mother. This veteran voice actor brings an end-of-the-tether credibility to the role, as Mom devolves from emotional exhaustion to crazed paranoia. At the same time, she conveys a moral degeneration into terminal selfishness that gives the film’s climax its queasy edge.
Too much in love with atmospheric shots that add minutes without advancing the story, Yoshida can also use the camera poetically to show, without a line of dialogue, why the title is both ironic and apt. The morning star is an ancient guide, but when you are on your way to a new future, the familiar sky blacked out by those sinful, delightful city lights, do you even miss it?
Fun fact: In addition to voicing dozens of anime heroes and heroines, Romi Park has dubbed the voices of Hillary Swank, Lucy Liu, Michelle Rodriguez and Clea DuVall for both TV and films.