Hollywood films about the immigrant experience are common enough (see “The Godfather” and other classic gangster movies for examples), while Japanese films on the same topic are rare, save for those about Zainichi (ethnic Koreans) in Japan. (Among the best is Zainichi director Yoichi Sai’s “Blood and Bones” from 2004.)

The winner of two prizes in the Asian Future section of last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, Akio Fujimoto’s “Passage of Life” is the first Japanese film I’ve seen that foregrounds people from Myanmar living here, though the problems of the film’s family are common to migrants from many countries, from the parents’ harsh struggle to make a living to the father’s doomed quest for refugee status. (Last year Japanese authorities approved 20 of 19,628 refugee applications.)

Based on a true story, the film plays like a documentary and largely features first-time actors performing under their real names. However, it’s also a drama that features a compelling story arc and, instead of a case study of types, it becomes a group portrait of individuals with universal anxieties and hopes, drawn with an insider’s knowledge.

Passage of Life (Boku no Kaeru Basho)
Run Time 98 mins.

Fujimoto, who also wrote the script and edited, films from his subjects’ point of view, which includes upsetting encounters with Japanese immigration officials and frank talk among the migrants themselves about their plans and prospects, talk that the Japanese media, with its tendency to depict migrants as either kawaisō (pitiful) or kowai (scary), routinely ignores.

The father, a soft-featured and strong-willed man named Issace, works long hours as an apprentice cook and sees his wife, Khin, and young sons, Kaung and Htet, only fleetingly, though he tries to be attentive. Meanwhile, Khin, who works part-time at a dry-cleaning plant, is fed up with her family’s uncertain situation. Their applications for refugee visas have been rejected and, though their Japanese legal advisor urges patience, she sees no future for them in Japan.

She eventually suffers a metal collapse and, over Issace’s objections, decides to return to Myanmar with the boys, though they speak only Japanese and know no other home than Japan. Once at his grandparents’ house in Yangon, Kaung complains about his new environment (“It’s dirty here,” he says) and longs for his father and friends in Tokyo. One day he packs his knapsack and runs out the door in the general direction of the airport.

Until this point the film is a slice-of-life drama that focuses on Issace and Khin’s troubled marriage and Khin’s slide into depression, with Kaung’s story of homesickness and rebellion serving as counterpoint. Then, suddenly, we shift to following the boy as he wanders through an urban wilderness. One comparison is Shinji Somai’s 1993 film “Moving,” with its young heroine’s transformative night walk through a forest.

Kaung’s journey is not as lyrical or mysterious, though something happens (best not to say what) that verges on the impossible but lifts the film into a realm at once mythical and real. Kaung moves beyond the embrace of his family and the safety of Japan into a wilder, freer and more independent space.

For the first time he smiles — and the meaning of film’s title at last becomes clear. This doesn’t mean Myanmar has won out over Japan, only that one boy is moving on. Destination: unknown.

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