In the sleepy coastal town of Uobuka, the statue of a googly-eyed green sea monster named Nororo towers over a precipice. According to legend, Nororo is an evil presence from the sea and whoever looks into its eyes will be damned. In ancient times, annual sacrifices were made every year during Uobuka’s own Nororo festival – two villagers would be chosen to jump off the cliff; one would be saved, while the other would sink and drown.
This slice of Japanese kaiju folklore is merely an appetizer for the real bizarreness to come in Yoshida Daihachi’s The Scythian Lamb, which won the Kim Ji Seok award at the 2017 Busan International Film Festival. Based on a manga by Yamagami Tatsuhiko and Igarashi Mikio, this offbeat black comedy is a fine blend of droll humour, social drama, thriller and even romance, spread out slightly over two hours.
Tsukisue (Japanese idol Nishikido Ryo) is a city official in charge of a new government resettlement project that grants parole to low-risk prisoners in Uobuka, a coastal town known for its “nice people” and “great seafood”. If these prisoners can stay here (and out of trouble) for 10 years, they will be freed. It's a way to kill two birds with one stone: not only will it curtail public costs of keeping inmates, the injection of new blood will fight the problem of rural depopulation.
It is soon discovered, however, that these six prisoners are convicted murderers, and it’s up to Tsukisue to ensure that their true identities remain concealed to the general townsfolk. But it doesn’t take long before a body washes up on the pier, and Tsukisue begins to doubt the seemingly reformed ways of his new residents.
Yoshida continues his trademark of whimsy genre hybrids, though this latest feature is considerably toned down compared to previous works such as 2012’s The Kirishima Thing. We are introduced to a colourful group of flawed characters in The Scythian Lamb, including the likes of jittery barber Fukumoto (Mizusawa Shingo) who slit his ex-boss’s throat with a razor, the sexy Ota (Yuka) who finds love again in Tsukisue’s elderly father, former Yakuza member Ono (Tanaka Min), the questionable Sugiyama (Kitamura Kazuki) and the courteous, placid Miyakoshi (Matsuda Ryuhei), who begins dating Tsukisue’s surly crush Aya (Kimura Fumino).
For a bunch of stock prisoners defined by the same cold-blooded crime, Yoshida has done well to craft distinctive personalities for each individual, alongside humanistic backstories capable of inducing pathos. With that, it’s even more of a pity that equal character development is not followed through across the board – the terrific Ichikawa Mikako is sorely underused as an ex-victim of relationship abuse, and a recluse who buries dead animals in the soil of her backyard.
Buoyed by a rock soundtrack with bewitching guitar riffs, The Scythian Lamb unspools with an unhurried pace that often lulls the audience into a false sense of security, before the rug is pulled out from underneath. Tonal shifts are skilfully executed, with dramatic tension ratcheted up in the second half of the film, alongside bouts of chilling violence dished out in casual, low-key fashion.
Which brings us back to the film’s title: drawing on elements of an animal fable, the Scythian Lamb refers to the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, a zoophyte believed to grow sheep as its fruit. The sheep were connected to a plant by an umbilical cord, and once they had finished grazing on the surrounding greens, both sheep and plant would perish. The title is perhaps a metaphor for the destructive nature of humanity, and our disposition to turn on our own kind.
Some interesting questions about the mutability of human nature and the deceptiveness of appearances are raised – can a leopard really change its spots? Is it possible to suppress your deepest innate desires? How trusting and forgiving can we afford to be to strangers? Along with Tsukisue and the townsfolk of Uobuka, we as audiences are subconsciously forced to examine our own personal biases towards a set of outsiders we don’t encounter every day.
The film’s ending may be perceived by some as jumping the shark, but there’s a nice circularity involving the existence of karma – or sheer coincidence – though one can never be sure. The omnipresence of Nororo and the exploration of rituals in a small-town festival further ground the narrative in the mystical and mundane, creating an intriguing world far detached from reality.
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