I recall one day seeing a trailer for the movie Mukoku (2017) without subtitles, and something about it just struck with me. I had no clue what was going on in the trailer, but it was filled with energy, and drama that I wanted to check it out by any means. When I did some digging into the movie, Mukoku is actually based on a novel written by author Shushei Fujisawa who wrote the novels The Twilight Samurai, Love and Honor, and The Hidden Blade all which got critically successful film adaptations. Discovering this information explains why the film was successfully crowdfunded on Motion Gallery. More interestingly though, apparently one of things that would be covered by the campaign was apparently English subtitles. I don’t know Japanese, and I’m using Google translate so that could be wrong. If not, I would say that is a shame, but I didn’t end up thinking much of the movie to my dismay. I’m hoping the people who gave money to this production got what they wanted because I sure certainly didn’t.
The setup to this sports drama is our protagonist Kengo (Go Ayano) is drowning in his misery tying his love of Kendo to his trouble relationship with his father. The opening terrifically showcases the harsh training Kengo underwent as a child, and implying through a simple transition the animosity it build in him through adulthood. Instead of continuing from this great opening we’re instead introduce to teenage rapper Tooru (Nijrio Murakami). A significantly less interesting character who became a detriment of the movie’s story. These two characters are in stark contrast showcasing what I love, and hate about independent filmmaking.
Kengo is a complex character facing conflicting emotions within himself fighting his inner demons. Father abuse, guilt for making his father bedridden, his tainted view on a sport he loves, and being unable to forgive himself are enough to make an entire movie around. However, Tooru has to have just much screen allotted to him who just plods along feeling like a series of just because. Tooru is missing that history that makes Kengo worth following on his story. Creating a noticeable detachment between Kengo, and Tooru portions of the movie.
Tooru introduction of possibly being traumatized by a drowning incident inadvertently excites him. After that sequence, it’s a up to your interpretation method to characterizing him. Unlike Kengo who has plenty of traits to tie him to reality serving the abstract storytelling well in his part. Tooru has less going for him with the abstract storytelling leaving him shallow.
So for about thirty minutes it takes the art house approach of being deliberately slow. This minimalistic approach ends up backfiring whenever the focus is on Tooru. It’s established early on he loves to write rap music, but that ends up amounting to nothing. Not even the lack of acknowledgement that Tooru just abandoned it contribute to Tooru lack of personality. Another issue is some of its story gets lost in translation. Things like Kengo becoming what he hates in his father gets lost in the shuffle of subplots, and side characters that remain underdeveloped.
Kengo on the hand must go through the road to recovering. Seemingly more hopeless the more he looks into himself. Eventually asking himself if he truly hates his father enough to want to kill him. Not only this, but by showing glimpses of Kengo, and his father interacting it’s position in a way where it’s not cut, and dry on how viewers should feel about this conflict. Kengo father is gradually developed to be just as much of a tragic figure as Kengo. Providing a complex father, and son dynamic promised in the opening of the movie.
Alongside the uneven writing quality between Tooru, and Kengo portions of the movie is the pacing. Bad pacing is consistent as scenes always feel dragged out longer than they should be. With Kengo it makes sense since he’s regularly seen tormented by his past, while Tooru gets none of that. Tooru gets plenty of training sessions in substitute of depth. The importance of proving his worth to his Kendo master gets lost among the sloppy writing. Mixing up looking for excitement with proving himself.
As much as I praised Kengo side of the story one area it falter where Tooru exceeds at is the climax. An eventual match between Kengo, and Tooru gets set up around 40 something minutes into the movie. It’s not a confrontation that offers either character an extensive introspection of who they are. This confrontation works for Tooru storyline since it feels aimless, but eventually finds purpose. Kengo on the other storyline has purpose, but comes off as a cheap solution to everything setup. Kengo literally lashing out his frustration on a Tooru doesn’t like the right course his character should take, nor makes it work.
Water is used as a metaphor in this movie in a in your face form, but the intended meaning is very foggy. My own interpretation from the movie, Kengo was drowning in his misery, and Tooru wants a excitement similar to the time he almost drowned since it sexually excites him. It’s leaves little to the imagination when Tooru yells out “I’m coming! I’m coming! I’M COMING!” when fighting against Kengo in the rain. Once they both reached the conclusion of their arcs it’s clear how water as a metaphor was used for Kengo. On Tooru it’s baffling since it seems like it regresses his character. His whole love of writing lyrics for music up vanishes, and repeats his behavior again. Of course it be they both stop drowning themselves inadvertently helping each other overcome a dark aspect of their past. I’ll go with that last one since art house movies waver in having a clear message.
Easily the best of part Mukoku for me was Go Ayano. His acting was top notch in the film portraying a tragic soul in his character. Delivery his lines in a way where every verbal outburst leaves an impression of a self destructed man. Ayano sloppy movements is a nice touch when he picks up a wooden sword in any scene he holds one. Showing great form, and control of the bokuto (wooden swords) convincing the viewer he’s a true kendo expert.
Nijiro Murakami does a good job as Tooru in spite of the sloppy material. With the exception of the one line delivery “I’M COMING!” at the top of his lungs. Murakami comes off very naturally. Granted Murakami subtle performance does come at the cost of being able to show his full range as an actor like Go Ayano during his more dramatic intense scenes. Kaoru Kobayashi was great in his brief time. Instantly he’s able to create a stern, and tough father figure in a matter of seconds. I personally would have liked to see more of him making quite an impression. Akira Emoto who plays a dojo master I could have done without. He simply seems like he’s phoning it in. Not a single scene that he was a part of did I believe he was his character.
On the technical side it’s pretty modest. Other than a few shots at the beach the cinematography is bland. Only twice in the movie is there an attempt to make up it lack of visual flair with ingenious transitions. My favorite one was easily Nijiro Murakami performing a rap song on stage; he goes down to a crowd fence, vomits mud & fish next to the crowd fence, the lights behind him shines up creating a foggy like effect, Murakami sees paperlike cut out of the audience underwater, and the water rises up above him. This clever transition shows the viewer a crucial part of his past without making it obvious it takes place in the past. Sound design can be absorbing, and atmospheric as much as the direction can be overbearing in places, especially the thirty minutes that feel longer than they should be. The Kendo fights are few, but they are well done, especially one where Go Ayano goes into a dojo, and beats up like a dozen students in training with ease.
For around the last 6 to 8 minutes Mukoku has no dialogue much in the same way I ran out of things to say about this movie. I found it disappointing since my sometime jaded views on sport stories in any media is a large hurdle to overcome. So when I found one that tick the box of doing something I don’t expect, and with a sport I rarely see depicted of course that’ll grab my attention. Strange how a movie that also touches on finding peace in oneself does the opposite for me. Sadly, only Go Ayano performance is the only aspect I came out liking in a otherwise middling movie with too much highs, and too much lows to suggest anyone check out.