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Christianity is a minority religion in Japan and films here focusing on Japanese Christians are few. Japanese directors who are also practicing Christians are even harder to find.

Koichiro Oyama is not Christian, as far as I know, though his first feature, “His Bad Blood,” is populated with Christian believers and apostates.

The film grapples with issues of sin and forgiveness without the sort of caricaturing found in other Japanese films with Christian themes and motifs, while going beyond the trappings of the religion in presenting a story of father-son discord. Though turbulent like many a family melodrama here, the film is rooted in real, dark emotions, not received attitudes.

His Bad Blood (Itsukushimi Fukaki)
Rating
Director Koichiro Oyama
Run Time 107 mins
Language JAPANESE
Opens June 19

Based on a true story told to Ikkei Watanabe, the film’s star, “His Bad Blood” begins with the nighttime robbery of a house and the birth of a child, all in the same village — and same family. The thief, Hiroshi (Watanabe), is also the child’s father. Caught after a frantic search by the village folk and saved from death by a compassionate Christian minister, Genichiro (Akio Kaneda), Hiroshi vanishes from the lives of his wife and infant son.

Thirty years pass. The son, Shinichi (Yu Toyama), is now drifting through life, despite the efforts of his protective mother, Kayoko (Atsumi Hiraguri), to find him a job. Meanwhile, the locals, his mother included, see him as the inheritor of his father’s “bad blood.” A string of home robberies leads the community to suspect Shinichi, despite his loud denials, and so he leaves the village and seeks refuge in the minister’s church. “Find a purpose,” says Genichiro. “I want to wreck my father’s life,” replies Shinichi.

Soon after, Genichiro invites Hiroshi, who is now a petty gangster dangerously in debt, to stay at the church as well. His not-so-secret goal? Reconnect father with son. But the psychopathic Hiroshi is indifferent to his estranged child, while Shinichi can’t forgive his father for abandoning him.

Shinichi’s perceived taint of “bad blood” and Hiroshi’s label as a “devil” reflects the family and community’s collective judgment more than standard Christian injunctions to “hate the sin and not the sinner” (though societies in the Christian countries have been known to level such judgments as well). Also, when Hiroshi schemes to insert a phony ecclesiastic dressed like a Halloween version of a pope into a Sunday service, the clapping, chanting reaction of the parishioners to a staged miracle (a wheelchair-bound woman suddenly regains the ability to stand) shocks Genichiro to his core. How can his flock fall so easily for a transparent con?

The film’s Japanese title, which is also the title of the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” is not intended as bitter irony. The chance of salvation, or rather positive change, exists (though the direct Christian connection may be hard to see), and the blood ties between parent and child can never be broken.

Both Watanabe and Oyama have a background in stage and the film has something of theater feel, with the performances amped up a notch or two higher than life. Also, as Shinichi, Toyama starts as a pouty, sullen loser bemoaning his fate. Even the kindly Genichiro gets fed up with him. But he is also stubbornly determined not to succumb to his “bad blood” and, somewhat incredibly, succeeds by the story’s end.

I found myself liking him — and the film — more than I first thought possible. That’s the real miracle of “His Bad Blood.”

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