Kengo Yatabe (Go Ayano) is a young man battling several demons. His father, strict to the point of psychologically abusive, trained him in the art of kendo. After an incident in which Kengo struck him across the head with a bokuto, his father is now comatose and Kengo feels the guilt of his actions, knowing that he has as good as killed his own father. He has retreated into the bottle, given up kendo, and now works as a security guard. His days consist of routine punctuated by heavy drinking, a far cry from the young focussed athlete he once was. Tooru (Nijiro Murakami) is a teenager who likewise seems frustrated and alienated from the world. His passion is rap and specifically writing lyrics which help him express his pent up rage and emotions. After a run-in with a group of kendo players, he is dragged along to their training session. Showing himself to be full of aggression, though untrained, the tutor takes an interest in him. The teacher is also trying to bring Kengo round from his stupor and arranges for the two men to cross paths. This fateful meeting puts both on a collision course, with Tooru now dedicated to the sport that Kengo is attempting to run from.
From the opening scenes of the film it is clear that this is something special. We see a young Kengo and his father training, while the mother calls them for dinner. The transition to the inciting incident of Kengo injuring his father is perfect in putting the audience off-guard. It is not immediately clear what has happened, as the early scenes could be straight from a samurai film, suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a university student. This perfectly captures one of the film’s themes as we see the ancient traditions coming right down to the present. This confusion also puts us in a similar position to Kengo himself as he is unable to fully come to terms or understand what happened, whether it was an accident or purposeful attack. Throughout he is haunted by visions and recriminations of that event, and it is not at first clear exactly what happened. Likewise, the way the film shows Tooru’s sense of isolation with an opening shot with him out of frame and imagery of an underwater crowd at his concert, shows the skill and confidence of the director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri to tell this story in an interesting visual way. The script is written by Ryo Takada, based on the book by Shu Fujisawa. Both Go Ayano and Nijiro Murakami give exceptional performances. The director is not afraid of long takes and even in lengthy scenes both are entirely believable in their roles. The supporting cast, most notably Akira Emoto as the kendo instructor help to bring this world to life. There is a small part for Atsuko Maeda as Kengo’s girlfriend. The story is well paced and the occasional flashbacks and lapses into Kengo’s traumatic recollections keep you guessing what has happened and what will happen. It is not a typical sports story, though there are occasional training montages, but everything is tied more particularly into the psychology of Kengo, and to a lesser extend Tooru. The cinematography is beautiful, including some standout moments, such as the fight in the rain.
Mukoku is nominally a sports story, with a great insight into the art of kendo and scenes of practice and combat. This only acts as a support for the emotional drama of the main characters. It would not have worked with another sport. The traditionalism and values of kendo are of special significance in this story. In an early scene we see a giant statue of Kannon, a buddhist deity, on a hillside behind Kengo as he shares a beer with a homeless drunk. Themes of religion and tradition become more apparent as the film goes along. The film stresses the importance of having a strong moral code and more importantly something to focus on to prevent becoming wayward. The will to survive in the battle-practice of kendo can be seen as a basis for a healthy life and averting a descent into melancholy and despair. It is clear that Kengo is directionless, drifting through a life of alcohol and regret, with his former master attempting to set him back on the right path. Tooru is by contrast inspired by the strict training regime and dedication required for Kendo. The philosophy of kendo plays a central role in the story, with many of the lessons of this art becoming guiding principles for the characters. The ideas of sin and righteousness, displayed by Kengo’s straying from the path and Tooru’s adherence to it, is characterised well. A highly entertaining film dealing with several issues and coming at them from a peculiarly Japanese angle. Definitely recommended for those with an interest in kendo, its practice and philosophy.