Film / Reviews

'Siblings of the Cape': Uncomfortable, yet compelling

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

There are films that take you places you rather wish they wouldn’t. Within the first 10 minutes of “Siblings of the Cape,” I was ready to stop watching, but something about Shinzo Katayama’s scruffy, transgressive debut kept me hooked.

While it’s hard to give an unconditional recommendation for a movie about a disabled man who starts pimping out his severely autistic sister, Katayama is definitely doing something right here. Working from his own script — and paying out of his own pocket — he shows little interest in staying within the bounds of conventional taste; as depictions of mental disability go, this is closer to Lars von Trier’s “The Idiots” than Netflix’s “Atypical.”

Yoshio (Yuya Matsuura) lives with his younger sister, Mariko (Misa Wada), in a squalid apartment where unwashed dishes fester in the sink and the windows are pasted over with cardboard. When Mariko goes missing, then returns with semen-stained underwear and a ¥10,000 note in her pocket, her brother is initially furious. But after he loses his job at a shipyard and finds himself unable to pay the bills, he starts considering the unthinkable: maybe his little sister could bring in some cash instead.

Siblings of the Cape (Misaki no Kyodai)
Rating
Run Time 89 mins.
Language JAPANESE

After trying to foist Mariko onto some truck drivers and having a run-in with the local yakuza, Yoshio starts advertising her services via lurid pink flyers and escorting her directly to people’s homes. Yet what might seem like a simple case of exploitation turns out to be more complicated. While he’s an inept pimp, Mariko proves to be an extremely game sex worker. It seems she might even be having fun.

Wada throws herself into the role with the kind of abandon that would be impossible to imagine from a better-known actress with an advertiser-friendly image to preserve. It’s an empathetic and extraordinarily committed performance, compared to which Matsuura sometimes comes across a bit of a caricature.

Mariko isn’t one of those cute, high-functioning savants familiar from “The Good Doctor” or “The Big Bang Theory”: she speaks in single-word utterances, and her behavior sometimes suggests she has the mental age of a young child. The film isn’t inclined to pity her, though, and viewers who follow suit may notice that she manages to exert a fair amount of agency.

It’s a little disappointing that Katayama gives so much priority to Yoshio’s perspective, when it would have been more daring to show things through Mariko’s eyes. Even at the movie’s close, she remains something of a mystery to her brother — and, by extension, to the viewer.

Although he’s worked as an assistant director for Bong Joon-ho and Nobuhiro Yamashita, Katayama has had to wait a long time to make his debut. He has said he wanted to create the kind of movie that wasn’t being made in Japan, and from the opening title onward — scrawled across the screen in red calligraphy — this harks back to a more confrontational era of Japanese cinema.

With a few exceptions, Katayama doesn’t play the scenario for laughs, although he’s constantly finding ways to add splashes of color to the film’s miserabilist landscape.

“Siblings of the Cape” will undoubtedly be too much for some, but it’s a credit to a movie with such unpalatable subject matter that it manages to discomfit without triggering your gag reflex.