Integration and second opportunities are only two of the ideas that director Daihachi Yoshida has included in his multifaceted latest movie. Based on Tatsuhiko Yamagami and Mikio Igarashi’s manga Hitsuji no Ki (羊の木), “The Scythian Lamb“ won the Kim Ji Seok award at the 2017 Busan International Film Festival and subsequently has been well received in many important Festivals.
The title itself is cryptic and opened to many interpretations; the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary (Agnus Scythicus) is a legendary zoophyte of Central Asia, believed to grow sheep as fruit. The sheep were connected to the plant by an umbilical cord and grazed the grass around the plant. When the food was gone or – in other versions of the legend – when the cord was severed, both the plant and sheep died. An intriguing and slightly disturbing myth, just like the tone of the movie.
We are in the quiet (read: boring) coastal town of Uobuka, known for its “nice people” and “great seafood” but also for a Kaiju-style green sea monster called Nororo, whose statue dominates the sea from a cliff and reminds the townsfolk of the cruel human sacrifices to the deity in the ancient times. City official Tsukisue (Japanese idol Nishikido Ryo) has been appointed manager of a new government resettlement project that aims to solve two problems with one clever move. A group of low-risk prisoners are secretely relocated in town and given a honest job. If these prisoners reintegrate and stay peacefully there for 10 years they will be free to go. The plan seems appealing on paper as it will, at the same time, find a solution for both the increasingly populated prisons and the provincial gradual depopulation.
Tsukisue provides guidance and accueil to the newcomers reciting the “nice people” and “great seafood” story for each of them and introducing them to their new workplaces. They are a peculiar bunch of damaged individuals; the elderly ex-yakuza Ono (Min Tanaka) with a scary scarred face, the prison-trained barber Tsukisue (Shingo Mizusawa) who once slit a man’s throat, the smug know-it-all Sugiyama (Kazuki Kitamura), the obidient – if a bit robotic – young Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda), the love-starved Ota (Yuka) with unusual taste in men, and Kurimoto (Mikako Ichikawa) the victim of brutal domestic violence who buries dead little animals, inspired by an illustration of the titular lamb.
But despite the all-Japanese dedication to his job, Tsukisue isn’t totally convinced of the experiment. First he discovers that the group is far from low-risk as they are all ex murderers and when some violent episodes start to occur in town, suspicion creeps in. To make it worse, after welcoming Miyakoshi in his garage band, Tsukisue witnesses with mute disappointment the blossoming of a romance between his own love interest Aya (Fumino Kimura) and the ex-murderer; the rock band becomes an in-metaphor of acceptance in the community with all the pros and cons that come in the package. Like Scythian lambs, all the prisoners have their own umbilical cord that keeps them part of the community; humanity, compassion, empathy, guilt – you name it – but some of them will end up severing it, with dire consequences.
“The Scythian Lamb” is, in a way, a slippery fish. It starts as a black comedy but in a move that is becoming the director’s trademark storytelling, soon starts to trespass genres and blur “DVD-shelf-labels” to finish in proper thriller mode. Like life itself – explained Daihachi Yoshida in Udine – his movie displays an array of contrasting and unexpected moods, comedy and tragedy go hand in hand and it is his way to make the movie close to real life.
The core idea of the movie and the manga, the prisoners secretly “smuggled” in a community, is a truly inspiring theme; it is thought-provoking and intriguing, and triggers a variety of deep considerations about escaping the past, karma, retribution, the different motives and ranking of murder and – not last – the very topical debate about integration, forcing us often into the unpleasant shoes of skeptical doubters and challenging us to overcome distrust. However, this rich starting point loses part of its power somehow towards the climax, maybe because of an element of predictability, making the journey a bit more interesting than the actual destination.
Understandably, considering the number of the characters involved, the ex-cons are unevenly developed, giving some of them more screen-time and dialogues than others and it leaves you wanting to know more, for example of the interesting and mysterious Kurimoto. Nevertheless, their portraits are fleshy and engaging, even when quickly sketched thanks also to the excellent performances of the actors, included Nishikido Ryo.
“The Scythian Lamb” presents a bucketful of interesting themes, characters and situations, all blend together in a refreshing mix of genres but it left me thinking that it is perfect material for a serial narrative (manga or TV series) and that can feels slightly compressed in a movie that has already a long running time (126 min)