The port town of Otaru on Ishikari Bay is a popular tourist destination in Hokkaido because of its unique 1920s canal with its picturesque Victorian-style gaslights. However, a stone’s throw away from the tourist traps are average communities of working and middle class people, many of whom commute into nearby Sapporo for work. While we do get glimpses of Otaru’s famous port as the backdrop of Mipo Oh’s latest feature film Being Good (きみはいい子 / Kimi wa ii ko, 2015), the director focuses her camera intently on the lives of the common people of Otaru.
Being Good is an adaptation of the bestselling book of the same by Hatsue Nakawai (中脇初枝, b. 1974). The original book is a collection of five short stories set in the same town that are linked by the themes of abuse and people dealing with mental illness. Oh has taken three of these stories, “Santa no konai ie” (The House that Santa does not Visit), “Beppin-san” (Pretty Girl), and “Konnichi wa, sayonara” (Hello, Good-bye) and interweaves them in one Otaru neighbourhood. It’s a familiar setting which really could be found in any town in Hokkaido.
The “Santa no konai ie” thread tells the story of rookie elementary school teacher Tasuku Okano (Kengo Kora) who is struggling both to keep discipline in his rowdy classroom and to deal with difficult parents. He soon starts to suspect that a troubled child in his class may be suffering neglect and even abuse at home. His efforts to help the boy are consistently thwarted but he continues to look for a solution.
Meanwhile, Masami (Machiko Ono) of the “Beppin-san” story is struggling to look after her 3-year-old daughter Ayane on her own because her husband is away on long business trips abroad. Her isolation is compounded by the fact that she was abused as a child and her frustration erupts in violence towards Ayane. She tries to hide her nasty secret from the mothers she meets with at the playground, but one of the moms (Chizuru Ikewaki) is more perceptive and understanding than she could ever imagine.
Another lonely woman in the neighbourhood is the elderly home owner Kazumi (Michie Kita) who never married. She is known locally as suffering from mild dementia, which sometimes leads her into difficult situations such as when a supermarket employee, Mrs. Sakurai (Yasuko Tomita), catches Kazumi unintentionally shoplifting. One day Kazumi finds that an autistic boy (Amon Kabe) who always greets her with “Konnichi wa, sayonara” is in a panic because he has lost his house key. Kazumi invites him into her home and he reminds her of the younger brother she lost during the firebombing of Tokyo. By chance, his mother turns out to be the supermarket employee who is shocked to discover that this woman she thought was crazy actually is full of a wisdom and love beyond anything she has experienced from the “normal” members of her community. She begins to realize that she has been focusing too strongly on her son’s tics instead of recognizing the goodness in him.
I saw the EU premiere of this film at Camera Japan 2015 in Rotterdam. The film is not an easy one to watch, especially for people who have experienced or witnessed abuse in their own lives. I gave a talk on Japanese Women Behind the Scenes immediately after this screening and found that many audience members were still reeling from the disturbing abuse depicted or suggested by the film. I say “suggested” because Oh is careful not to show the worst of the abuse on screen by having the girl’s body blocked by her mother’s body shot from behind; however, this doesn’t not really lessen the emotional impact of the scenes. The sound of the violence and of the child screaming are traumatic. As are the evidence of bruises on her skin afterwards. The performance of the children in this film are truly amazing to behold and if I ever have a chance to interview Mipo Oh I would ask her about how she worked with the child actors. It must have taken a great deal of sensitivity in order to get these heartbreakingly realistic performances from them.
There are no easy answers or real happy endings in this film. In fact, many of the key issues remain frustratingly unresolved. While many audience members that I chatted with said they felt deeply disturbed by the child abuse scenes, I believe that these were very realistically portrayed stories that need to be told. Unfortunately abuse is much more common than we would like to believe and we need to educate ourselves and not try to sweep it under the carpet. Being Good imparts the message that we should connect with our neighbours and communities so that people who need help know that there are people out there who do care. As Okano’s sister tells him, we need to treat our children well, so that world peace can become a reality.
Mipo Oh (also written as Mipo O /呉 美保, b. 1977) is third generation Korean-Japanese. She grew up in Mie prefecture and graduated from Osaka University of Arts. She began her career as a screenwriter to Nobuhiko Obayashi and went on to make commercials and short films before directing her first feature in 2005. Her 2014 film The Light Only Shines There won her numerous awards at international film festivals and was Japan's entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Most recently, Being Good won the NETPAC Jury Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival 2015 for “being seeing, insightful and incredibly sincere.” Learn more about Oh’s work at Japanese Women Behind the Scenes.
2015 Cathy Munroe Hotes