Japan Cuts 2016: Being Good (Mipo O)

by Jason Suzuki

きみはいい子 (Kimi ha iiko)

Resisting the urge to not take the easy paths of too sweet or too sour, Mipo O's film is a grounded look at the cycles of abuse that occur in all aspects of society. It asks whether the ease to remain aloof trumps the urge to get involved and do the right thing; whether spectator or participant in the mistreatment. Juggling three tales that only slightly intertwine, Being Good could be a hard sell as it may appear too saccharine for those doing a quick survey of recent Japanese releases. Alternately, it delves into depths that may be too unsettling for those who came for the sweetness assumed by the promotional materials to the film. The Kore-eda crowd would jive with O's film, a shame no one has decided to pick it up for Western release. Being Good refuses to be overt in any way until its earned, and every moment has the best of thematic intentions.

The triptych all takes place within one town. The decisions of one story's characters do not necessarily influence the lives of the others. The intertwining in O's film is to highlight the shared experiences that we are unaware of and the deep moral dilemmas we all encounter behind closed doors. The cause and effects of the film span much farther than the simple and immediate. Kengo Kora is Tasuko a second grade school teacher who in his first year as teacher struggles to deal with his rowdy class, the bullying going on in front of him and behind his back, the parents of the kids, his coworkers. When he suspects one of his students is being abused by their father he attempts to figure out how to get involved. The next story to get an equal amount of screen time is Machiko Ono as housewife Masami. Her husband is off to work in Thailand leaving her essentially a single mother raising her 3-year old daughter. When we meet her the pressures of her situation have already set in and her physical abuse of her daughter has become a daily occurrence. This is a complete reversal of the meek housewife she played in Kore-eda's Like Father Like Son. She befriends a bubbly mother of two young kids (Chizuru Ikewaki returning to work with O) and watches with disbelief the relaxed way she handles their rowdiness.

The story to get the least amount of time is that of Michie Kita's character, an elderly woman living by herself and starting to show signs of dementia. She sees cherry blossom petals fall out of season and walks out of the supermarket forgetting to pay for her things. Her story is so rarely returned to that at first it feels needless when the other two are so engrossing but then she gets her moment where you realize how essential everything is to the film and the interplay between stories.

These characters and their situations are prime for redemption or success through growth. The scenes in which Masami abuses her daughter are incredibly hard to watch. The camera is distant, replicating an audience's stance towards her but also to suggest a pain within Masami herself. These people are trapped in cycles larger than themselves so when they have their eureka moments and break through the hurt it is so deeply satisfying.

The closest analogue I can come up with for Being Good, and is one I doubt will help the film attract a bigger audience, is Brad Bird's Tomorrowland. Both feature characters who develop a rhetoric based on optimism that is sure to rub some the wrong way; it's not hip to give a shit. Both films direct this optimism for the future. Where Tomorrowland occupied a weird space where there was an element of nostalgia for an outdated idea of what the future could hold, Being Good see the future as children, and how adults treat them affects the way they act in the long run. Tasuko and Masami constantly encounter the little things that children do that were derived from a parent or some other adult. Even they are products of their parents for better or worse. If this influence is so strong then we can all be better and it's never too late to try says both films, and not everyone is hurtling toward the future so fast that change of course is impossible.

Mipo O's previous film The Light Shines Only There was chosen to represent Japan at the Academy Awards. The lack of a nomination proved the long shot that it was but what it did do was help get O some deserved international attention. While in the end these awards have become another tool to market films, it would be a win for sincerity and unsentimental hope if she were to get to represent the country once more with Being Good (since the time of writing, the Yoji Yamada film was picked instead). It's a film where the Sony Pictures Classics logo would fit right in at the beginning but alas the director doesn't have one of those winning last names (Kore-eda, Kawase).

The ending might prove frustrating for those who want every action to be concluded with a concrete result. But the film understands that the effort is beautiful; the phenomenon is the complicated mix of emotions that result in the attempt, success or failure be damned.

Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.