By Roxy Simons.
“You don’t fear me?” Ryuhei Matsuda’s Miyakoshi asks council worker Tsukisue (Ryo Nishikido) when he arrives in the sleepy town of Uobuka, his new home for the next ten years. “You and I are humans,” Tsukisue responds, despite his reservations about the sudden influx of ‘suspicious’ people in the town. Miyakoshi is one of six new inhabitants to move to Uobuka over the past few days, not because they want to, but because they must, as part of the Ministry of Justice’s rehabilitation program.
Miyakoshi, Sugiyama (Kazuki Kitamura), Rieko (Yuka), Kiyomi (Mikako Ichikawa), Fukumoto (Shingo Mizusawa), and Ono (Min Tanaka) are linked by one thing: their criminal past. Each served time for murder, though with differing levels of severity, but rather than serve their full sentence they’re forced out of prison to save taxpayer’s money. While their introduction in the town will aid its dwindling population levels, one question remains: Will people be able to accept them, despite their crimes?
This is the dilemma posed in The Scythian Lamb directed by Daihachi Yoshida, itself adapted from the manga Hitsuji no Ki, written by Tatsuhiko Yamagami and illustrated by Mikio Igarashi. Speaking to All the Anime at the Udine Far East Film Festival, Yoshida is candid about his motivations for making the film: “I really liked the set-up of the actual story, I was interested in how the manga looked at problems in society, as well as the thriller aspect of it as well.”
“In the society we’re living in now, if somebody comes to your house and then starts living next door they are strangers, aren’t they? There are so many people that we don’t know surrounding us. I’ve never been to prison, so I don’t know how inmates live, and I don’t know how they think either, but these kinds of people are living among us. So, I was very interested in the idea of seeing people I don’t know and spotting the difference, and [looking at] how they react within society.”
The manga originally featured 11 characters, but not all were convicted murderers, they were a mixture of thieves, drug offenders, and other petty criminals. To Yoshida, it was more important to focus on the one, most dreadful, crime because “we are most scared of” them. Talking about the source material, he explains: “After reading the manga, my first impression was that I couldn’t make it into a film because it’s just too chaotic, and so many things were happening. But, what I really liked about the story was its premise.
“So, I thought if I could input this into a narrative then I could make a good film. I became intrigued by looking at the relationship between people and ex-convicts. I couldn’t include everything in the manga because it’s very long, but I thought this idea was interesting.”
While there are many criminal characters featured in the story, it’s Miyakoshi who takes centre stage as the most level-headed, soft-spoken and seemingly harmless individual. He quickly ingratiates himself with Tsukisue, becoming a large part of his life whether the council worker wants it or not. Matsuda’s depiction of the criminal lulls the audience into a false sense of security, making them sympathise with him before he totally betrays that trust. It’s one of the most shocking moments in the film, and makes the story stand out in viewer’s minds.
This is what makes Miyakoshi so compelling for Yoshida and actor Matsuda, as they were intrigued by how they could entrance the audience through him. But, working together to make his character a well-rounded individual wasn’t easy, and of this the director says: “I couldn’t really describe to my actors how they should react or how they should play their characters. Maybe we can label Matsuda’s character as a psychopath, or traumatised person, but I intentionally didn’t use those two words as I wanted to differentiate his character from those types of characters,” adding that if he had tried to explain, his description would have been “false”.
The director goes on to describe how the film takes a slightly greyer approach to the classic tropes of good and evil; “It’s our decision as to who is good and who is bad, and, in this film, there are characters who are trying to be good, but they’re not naturally a good person. There are so many people existing like that in this world, but we’re going to have to co-exist with them so that leads to my big theme in this film: How generous can you be towards these strangers?”
“I realised while making the film that there are a lot of social issues going on that we need to face. Without directing the film, I wouldn’t have known because all I usually do is watch football, that’s all I’m really interested in. So, by making this film, I was able to make myself think more deeply about this issue and find out the depth of the problems within our society.”
The Scythian Lamb is screenings as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme from 2nd February to 28th March across the UK and Ireland.