Yoshihiro Nakamura isn’t as high a profile Japanese director as folks like Takashi Miike or Kiyoshi Kurosawa, but he truly deserves to be. His early career focused on horror, but the last few years have seen him deliver powerfully affecting entertainment in the form of films that explore friendships and relationships through fresh, thrilling and often fascinating stories. Fish Story, Golden Slumber and A Boy and His Samurai are fantastic movies, each charming and supremely entertaining in their own ways., and any one of those films would mark Nakamura as a director to watch.
But all three on his resume means anything he directs deserves at least a cursory glance.
Thanks to Third Window Films those of us who don’t speak Japanese finally have the opportunity to view one that preceded the three above but retains some of the same themes and much of the quality.
“And you have been dragged into a story that is not yours.”
Shiina (Gaku Hamada) is leaving home for the first time to attend college, and the shy young man’s first few days are as hectic and lonely as you’d expect. He tries to befriend his apartment building neighbors by giving gifts, but it doesn’t seem to get him very far. One day while singing a Bob Dylan song to himself he’s approached by one of those neighbors by the name of Kawasaki (Eita). The tall, confident man shares an affinity for Dylan’s “God-like” voice and invites Shiina in for a drink.
The two become fast friends to the point that Kawasaki feels comfortable asking Shiina for a favor… he wants to give a dictionary to Shiina’s neighbor, Dorje (Kei Tamura), and he needs help stealing the local bookstore to get it. Oh, and he tells him in no uncertain terms to stay away from the pet shop owner, Reiko (Nene Ohtsuka), as she’s not to be trusted.
Events grow stranger and more complicated from there as Shiina tries not only to form new friendships but also to figure out what exactly is going on with his new friends. Other characters come into play as the story grows, shifts and restructures itself before our eyes. What Shiina thinks he knows, and what we in turn think we know are far from guarantees. The tone shifts in addition to the narrative, and what begins as a deceptively light coming of age story morphs into something darker, sadder and ultimately more powerful.
The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God In a Coin Locker bears many themes and structural ideas in common with the best of Nakamura’s later work. This shouldn’t come as a surprise though as it’s based on a novel by Kotaro Isaka who also provided the source material for both Fish Story and Golden Slumber. Like those two films a particular song plays a role in the story’s development, and while the connection isn’t as direct or relevant here its presence is an important factor in what brings these people together.
More familiar is Nakamura’s use of a flexible narrative structure as the story here moves forwards and backwards in time only to be completely upended by the third act. It’s altered perceptions that drive the shifts as opposed to simply jumping randomly around, and the result is a film that challenges and rewards the patient viewer.
The actors do a fine job across the board bringing the story to life both in the playful early scenes and the harsher, more emotional events that follow. Hamada brings an innocence to the story of someone who simply wants to belong, and we can’t help but feel for him (and perhaps recognize some of ourselves in him) as the story gets away from him. Eita is the stand out though as his character takes some surprising and challenging turns along the way.
While the pieces come together by the end it could be argued that the story spends too much time laying groundwork and dropping subtle hints before things truly coalesce and the story grows noticeably darker in tone. It risks feeling uneven, or worse, for viewers not following closely enough, the third act risks feeling unearned.
So pay attention goddammit.
Viewers familiar with Nakamura’s later work will recognize his fingerprints all over this film, and fans should be thrilled at the prospect of its release. Third Window Films, who also released Fish Story in the UK, have done their typically stellar job and included some intriguing extras along with the movie. Movie lovers with region-free DVD players would be wise to pick up a copy.
The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God In a Coin Locker hits DVD in the UK (meaning it’s a region 2 release) on January 14th