At first glance, Mikami is an unassuming protagonist. Played by Koji Yakusho, his face is lined with age and perpetually downtrodden, his shoulders hunched in a way that shrinks the man instantly. An ex-yakuza member (though he’d rather label himself a lone wolf, something that his life of solitude would suggest) he’s getting out of prison after 13 years. His crime? Murder – though he’d say it was purely self defense (although the eleven stab wounds the assaliant received might argue otherwise.) Despite these factors and the fact that he plainly states that he has no remorse over the act he committed and only mourns the time he lost because he wasted it on some random delinquent, still, there’s a vacancy to Mikami that doesn’t instantly draw us in. It’s not until an act of simple kindness shakes him to the point of openly sobbing at a dinner table, a newly freed man, that his soul finally shows and we’re invited to look past a cold, passive veneer.
“Free” isn’t a fair descriptor of his status though. Now middle-aged and truly out of time with the modern Japanese society, he’s fighting health issues, welfare battles and a want to work but only possessing skills that don’t fit the modern work atmosphere. When asked about why he worked for the Yakuza, he said that it was nice to feel useful. His one wish when he reentered society involved mailing his inmate records to a television station to try and reunite him with his mother who abandoned him at the age of four, a wistful and naive dream of a man who has been alone for most of his life. It’s through this hope that brings him a sense of community – of a found family – from a local grocer to a sympathetic welfare agent and, most notable, the man holding the camera to document the ex-con’s story.
The power of Yakusho’s performance reveals itself in stages, less obvious in moments of rage or frustration and more when he’s aiming to repress whatever monster is building up in him – it’s in those sequences, such as when he bites his tongue as he listens to a young man being mocked – where his performance is towering – so much is said without uttering a word, his expressive and restless eyes able to tell us every ounce of irritation, anger and shame at staying quiet that he’s feeling. Yakusho is the star and the one whose performance the film rests on, but similarly impressive but with less time is Taiga Nakano as TV director Tsunoda, who possesses the youthful curiosity the character has in Mikami with easy charisma and the bond that the two develop is, by the end of the film, the heart of the story.
That heart nearly falters when the script begins to veer off course from its generous character study into more tried and tired tropes of a reformed man feeling the urge to break bad again. Witnessing the characters possible descent isn’t just irritating for a viewer who has invested so much time into his triumph (it’s not as if this isn’t a storyline that hasn’t been done before and done well) but it shakes the foundation the story had created for what is some unnecessary second act drama. It’s cheap and derivative in a way that the rest of the film isn’t. We don’t need to see Mikami get violent and beat someone with a ladder to understand his history of violence or how he could be so intimidating – a beautifully composed shot by Nishikawa where Mikami’s back takes up the entire frame as he breathes and tries to calm himself down demonstrates that in just one claustrophobic image – and using this near stumble is an unnecessary ploy to amp up the drama in the third act. It shows a lack of trust in the story as a whole. There’s 20 minutes that easily could’ve been cut out of the film for a tighter, more graceful story, and these are moments that should have been included.
Despite the overlong script by Nishikawa, the film is undoubtedly effective in it’s attempt to tell a story about one man whose life has been traced by scars – emotional and physical – while never using those as justifications for his actions. It’s not his past that makes him interesting, it’s the intent to use the time that he has to improve himself and his life, regardless of never quite easing into modern society. The Open Sky’s greatest achievements are in its approach to showcasing the kindness of strangers, the compassion of community and the support of a friend that show how all the little touches of grace, of intrigue and companionship can build a person up from the greatest depths. The beauty to be found isn’t so much in the scars that Mikami bore and how he collected them, but in the efforts taken by him and those around them to give them time to heal.