There are around 1,500 Kurdish people living in the greater Tokyo area, many of them forcibly displaced. Despite repeated applications, not one of them has been granted refugee status.

This is the bleak backdrop for Fumiari Hyuga’s “Tokyo Kurds,” which holds the surprising distinction of being only the second-most harrowing documentary about Japan’s treatment of asylum seekers to be released this year.

Thomas Ash’s “Ushiku” — which had its online premiere in May as part of the Nippon Connection film festival in Germany — used hidden cameras to capture interviews inside an immigration detention center in Ibaraki Prefecture, and the film’s austere, lo-fi aesthetic was a perfect match for its unblinking moral gaze.

Tokyo Kurds (Tokyo Kurudo)
Run Time 103 mins.
Language Japanese, Kurdish
Opens Now showing

“Tokyo Kurds” offers a little more warmth, mostly because it takes place in the outside world, though its characters could hardly be described as free.

Shot over the course of five years, the film centers on two Kurdish men on the cusp of adulthood. Both were brought to the country as children and chat with each other in fluent Japanese, though in other respects they’re quite different.

Ramazan, soft-spoken and delicate-featured, is trying to be a model citizen, and studying eagerly for college entrance exams with the hope of becoming an interpreter. Ozan, a tough, charismatic high-school dropout who looks like he’s been taking fashion pointers from Cristiano Ronaldo, is working off-the-books with a demolition crew.

The pair already know better than to expect too much from their lives in Japan. They’re given regular reminders of how precarious their status is by the trips they have to make to the immigration bureau every few months, to renew their applications for provisional release.

The threat of being detained, seemingly at random, is all too real. A parallel story thread emerges when it transpires that Ramazan’s uncle, Mehmet, has been held at a detention facility in Tokyo’s Minato Ward for well over a year. His story would make national news in 2019, after immigration officials turned away two ambulances requested for him by his family, though it reaches a slightly happier conclusion here.

Hyuga doesn’t portray his subjects purely as victims, which is what gives “Tokyo Kurds” its strength. The film takes its time to show the rhythms and routines of its characters’ lives, following Ozan and Ramazan through traditional rites of passage that are given bitter irony by the knowledge of how constrained these men’s futures will be. When Ozan briefly dares to imagine something better for himself, it ends only in disappointment.

Even when the larger community gets together to celebrate Newroz, the Kurdish new year, the exuberant festivities are overshadowed by injustice. This is brought into focus by a startling sequence that comes early in the film, showing clashes that erupted outside the Turkish embassy in Tokyo on the final day of advance voting for the country’s 2015 election.

“Do they even see us as people?” asks a Kurdish protestor of the Turkish government. By the end of this sobering, sensitively observed documentary, it’s hard not to wonder the same about Japan.

A series of exchanges between Ozan and immigration officials, which we hear but don’t see, lays bare the harshness of the system with awful clarity.

“What if you just gave me a visa?” Ozan asks, half-jokingly.

“What if you just went home?” an official replies, in the same jocular tone. “Go to a different country.”

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