Miwa Nishikawa’s professional association with Hirokazu Kore-eda, one of Japan’s most internationally acclaimed directors, goes back two decades, when she served as a crew member on his early films. Her latest film, the richly layered “Under the Open Sky,” was made with his Bun-buku production company. Based on a 1990 novel by Ryuzo Saki, it’s Nishikawa’s first adaptation from another’s work: She had previously directed only from her own original scripts.

Interestingly, her ex-con protagonist resembles that of Kore-eda’s 2017 courtroom drama, “The Third Murder.” Both have been in prison for murder and both are played by the superbly versatile Koji Yakusho.

But Nishikawa is no Kore-eda clone. More so than her mentor, she has a populist streak that shows itself in the film’s moments of broad humor and tearful emotionality.

Under the Open Sky (Subarashiki Sekai)
Run Time 126 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Feb. 11

The film also digs deeper than any in recent memory into the difficult realities of life for ex-convicts here, beginning with the social barriers the middle-aged protagonist, Masao Mikami (Yakusho), faces after serving a 13-year stretch for killing a rival yakuza member.

Vowing to quit the gangster life, Masao struggles to fit into the regular world. A potential employer goes silent after hearing about his criminal record. A stiff-necked city hall bureaucrat tells him that former yakuza are ineligible for welfare benefits. He replies that he was a lone wolf who worked as gang muscle but never joined a gang.

Luckily, Masao finds support from a kindly lawyer (Isao Hashizume) and his down-to-earth wife (Meiko Kaji), as well as from an eager young filmmaker (Taiga Nakano) and tough-minded producer (Masami Nagasawa) who want to feature him in a TV documentary.

In Yakusho’s riveting high-voltage performance (which is leagues different from his tamped-down turn in “The Third Murder”), we see that Masao’s real problem is himself. Volatile and high-strung, he flies into a rage at any slight, jumps into two-fisted battle at any injustice. Even a sympathetic supermarket manager (Seiji Rokkaku) who tries to get him a job as a driver feels the sharp end of his temper.

He’s not entirely wrong in his actions (in fact, he is something of a righteous action hero), but after 28 years beyond bars for six different convictions, Masao also has little sense of how the world outside of prison works, though he needs to learn in order to survive. His hypertension is an apt expression of this dilemma: He must control his anger or his soaring blood pressure might kill him, but he doesn’t know how. So we get scene after disturbing scene of Masao clutching his chest and gobbling pills.

Having seen all too many films about gangsters trying to go straight, I had an idea of how this one would end, since the heroes of said films seldom manage to escape the gang life — alive at least. Nishikawa, who also wrote the script, doesn’t prove me entirely wrong — Masao does meet an old gang associate (the single-named Hakuryu), now a diabetic boss — but she also rejects the macho romanticism of the yakuza genre.

More than anything, Masao longs to reunite with his mother, who abandoned him when he was 4 years old. That plot strand is a first of sorts, but like so much else in this masterful portrait of a lifelong outsider trying to find a place in a society that hands out few second chances, it rings true and hits hard.

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