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Working from her own scripts, which are based on her own novels, Miwa Nishikawa has made film after cannily observed film about human duplicity, criminal or otherwise, often with a black-comedy slant. With her latest film, “Under the Open Sky,” Nishikawa shows again why she belongs in the top ranks of Japan’s directors.

Starring Koji Yakusho as a weathered ex-convict just released from prison after serving 13 years for murder, the film screened at the Toronto and Chicago festivals to glowing receptions from critics and fans, though Nishikawa couldn’t be there to bask in the applause.

Many reviewers, who have collectively given the film a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating, praise Yakusho’s performance, with Wendy Ide of the industry trade publication Screen International calling it “the film’s key selling point.”

During our interview at the offices of production company Bandai Visual, Nishikawa, 46, acknowledges that her casting of Yakusho opened her film to comparisons with “The Third Murder,” a 2017 drama by mentor Hirokazu Kore-eda, with whom she has had a close professional relationship for nearly two decades. Kore-eda’s film also stars Yakusho as an ex-con imprisoned for murder, though it is primarily a mystery/courtroom drama, not a character study like “Under the Open Sky.”

“Kore-eda and I make completely different types of movies,” Nishikawa says. “So thankfully we’re not like each other that way. But the fact that Yakusho also had a big role in ‘The Third Murder’ would make people think there was a resemblance, so I thought I had to make a film with a different sort of appeal.”

Nishikawa wrote her script based on the work of a fellow writer — Ryuzo Saki’s 1990 novel “Mibuncho” — a career first.

“I’d been using my own original stories for my films, but this time I had the interesting experience of using ideas someone else had researched and arranging their story in my own way, instead of coming up with my own ideas only,” she says. “I want to do it both ways going forward.”

In preparing Yakusho for the role, Nishikawa didn’t urge him to read Saki’s novel. “I left it up to him whether to refer to it or not,” she says. “But I also didn’t think he would read it and then feel compelled to act just like the protagonist in the novel.”

Even so, Yakusho’s character, Mikami, has an air of being from another time, that is, the 1980s bubble era in which the novel takes place. During that period, gangs were flourishing, unlike the present day in which they are struggling to exist.

“He’s been left behind by the times,” Nishikawa says. “After a long stretch in prison, he returns to a society he doesn’t know at all, with values and a common sense different from his own. He can’t adapt to it. In that sense, the hero (in the film) is like the hero in the novel. I believe Yakusho was conscious of that.”

In writing the script, Nishikawa also had to adapt her source material to present-day realities. Japan’s prison system, she explains, has changed, with inmates having a better living environment that they did in the ’80s. Meanwhile, harsher legal restrictions have made it more difficult for the gangs to operate.

“I met and interviewed people who had been in prison and those who had been yakuza, and I wrote (the script) reflecting their current situation, not the situation described in Saki’s novel,” she says.

But the ex-convicts of today, she adds, still face social prejudices that haven’t changed since the book was written.

“When I asked them why they committed crimes right after they had been released from prison, they told me they wanted to go back,” she adds. “For them, prison is easier; living in normal society is tough.”

Self-starter: 'Under the Open Sky' is the first time Miwa Nishikawa has directed a film that isn’t based on a novel she wrote. | © RYUZO SAKI / 2021 'UNDER THE OPEN SKY' PRODUCTION COMMITTEE
Self-starter: ‘Under the Open Sky’ is the first time Miwa Nishikawa has directed a film that isn’t based on a novel she wrote. | © RYUZO SAKI / 2021 ‘UNDER THE OPEN SKY’ PRODUCTION COMMITTEE

Nishikawa says she previously had little interest in the problems of former inmates trying to readjust to society, but her encounter with Saki’s novel made her more conscious of them.

“While filming a story the audience could enjoy, I wanted to make as many people as possible aware of this issue,” she says. “It’s something society has to address.”

The film, however, is not a feature-length message, with a model citizen at its center. Mikami may want to live a straight life but his hot temper gets him in trouble, time and time again. Also, his high blood pressure, which he struggles to control, limits what he can do.

“Being unable to participate in society and forced to accept welfare payments because of his condition is a blow to his pride,” Nishikawa says. “He becomes angry at various things. So his high blood pressure is an extremely important key to the story.”

To play Mikami, Nishikawa thought of Yakusho from the script-writing stage.

“I had his image in mind as I wrote it,” she says. “I knew I could definitely rely on him to do a good job. The other roles I cast after I had written the script.”

One inspired choice was Meiko Kaji to play the kind-hearted wife of the lawyer who tries to smooth Mikami’s transition to post-prison life. In the 1970s, Kaji rose to fame playing tough, take-no-prisoners types, starring in the cult classic “Lady Snowblood” films that Quentin Tarantino used as an inspiration for “Kill Bill Vol. 1.”

“I wanted her to do something that she hadn’t done before in her career,” Nishikawa says. “I wanted to show a fresh side of her.”

None of the characters, however, are the sort of easy-to-understand cliches that populate Japanese dramas. Mikami in particular, who built up his reputation among the yakuza with his fists, reveals a gentler side as the story proceeds, though he still battles his violent demons.

That sort of moral complexity, I comment, can be found in Nishikawa’s other protagonists, such as an avuncular rural doctor in “Dear Doctor” (2009), who turns out to be a fraud, while having a sincere concern for his patients.

“It’s just as you say,” Nishikawa replies. “(‘Under the Open Sky’) is not only about human good or evil; it’s also about what lies between good and evil. Both are complex, but that’s what human beings are. In my films I want to depict their complexity.”

“Under the Open Sky” may have similarities with Nishikawa’s earlier work, but with its socially isolated hero struggling to make sense of his “new normal,” it seems to be commenting on our present, even though it was filmed before the pandemic started.

“It just turned out that way,” Nishikawa says when I mention this to her. “But you’re right in that everyone is living their lives without the freedom they once had. They don’t have the connections with others they once had. In that sense, everyone is feeling a lot like (Mikami), while trying to endure. I think they’ll really be able to empathize with him. They share his emotional turmoil.”

“Under the Open Sky” is now showing in theaters nationwide. For more information, visit www.gaga.co.jp/intls/undertheopensky.

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