Starring Jo Odagiri Teruyuki Kagawa Masato Ibu Hirofumi Arai Yoko Maki
Running time: 120 min.
Reviewed by Eric Evans
The first 30-40 minutes of Miwa Nishikawa’s “Sway” are unassailably good: confident, stylish filmmaking introducing character after character though dialogue and exchanges that seem natural and true. That the film loses its way somewhat in the second half wouldn’t be so obvious were it not for the assured, crackling first half, and Nishikawa (who scripted as well) deserves overachiever’s credit for trying to do as much as she does. What could have been a fairly standard albeit entertaining family drama about a black sheep returning home takes a shocking turn, playing out in a courtroom with fraternal rivalry having the most serious of consequences.
We know everything we need to know about the dynamic between brothers Takeru (Joe Odagiri) and Minoru (Teruyuki Kagawa) from a handful of scenes. Takeru—handsome and stylish, successful with work and women, something of a shit—returns home to honor his mother on the first anniversary of her death, and walks in mid-ceremony having yet to change into his suit. It’s uncertain which is more rude, his lateness or his maroon leather jacket. Older brother Minoru—provincial, reliable, boring—immediately welcomes him anyway, the two settling into well-worn grooves. Later at dinner Takeru and their ill-tempered father (an explosive Masato Ibu) have an ugly exchange, and the differences between the brothers are made clear. Minoru establishes a shaky detente between the two, then sets about cleaning up their father’s upturned dinner plate from the tatami beneath. In their mother’s absence he’s become the surrogate caregiver, doing laundry and otherwise enabling their father to live as he’s accustomed. Worse, he also works at the family business, a gas station on the road into town. Minoru’s only joy comes from co-worker Chieko (subdued yet radiant Yoko Maki), the sort of small-town girl far too pretty to be pumping gas but trapped by her circumstances. Further complicating things, Chieko and Takeru used to be an item; she was too scared to accompany him to Tokyo years earlier, and seeing him again gives her hope for a second chance at a new life. Her situation is clear, both to her and the brothers: Minoru wants her for a wife, but that would mean a stultifying small-town life pumping gas; Takeru, meanwhile, doesn’t want her for more than a plaything, but he represents passion, art, and most importantly, escape. After a few minutes of catching up Takeru and Chieko fall into bed. For her it’s a rekindling full of promise, for him a few hours’ diversion. For Minoru, who swallows his pain and plays dumb, it’s a major blow.
At Minoru’s urging the three take a trip to a river park the next day to relive childhood vacations playing at water’s edge. Chieko’s choice between the two becomes frighteningly literal on an aged cable suspension bridge above the river gorge: does she cross, following Takeru into the unknown on the other side, or stay put, settling for the security but certain monotony and boredom of Minoru? The symbolism of the bridge isn’t lost on Minoru, who fights to keep her with him. They struggle, she falls to her death, and what follows is a near-miss courtroom drama where old grudges and resentment between brothers colors the memory of the only possible witness: Takeru, who saw only glimpses of the before and after, not the fateful event itself. His memory replays the event based on how he thinks it may have happened with more than a nod to “Rashomon”. Did Minoru throw Chieko off the bridge, enraged at rejection? Did she slip as she fought to escape his grasp? Takeru can easily imagine either, and since the rest of the case is entirely circumstantial his word will carry undue weight.
Once “Sway” moves into the courtroom it loses a bit of its swagger. That’s not to say it falls apart; the film is still compelling, and the performances—especially a fun supporting turn by Keizo Kanie as the brothers’ uncle, a lawyer willing to use any theatricality to make his case—are uniformly strong. Kagawa is perhaps Japan’s best actor, bringing a humanity to every part he plays. His Minoru smiles though hardship, but it’s a smile that says beaten by life. Even heartthrob OdaJo, who often has decent work dismissed owing to his matinee-idol looks, gives a thoughtful turn to a character who is not in the least sympathetic.
Critical response to the film was mixed, particularly in regard to how the story resolves itself. Nakashima avoids the twists and theatricalities endemic to courtroom drama, and maybe that’s the film’s problem. You can’t fault a filmmaker for avoiding genre expectations, but “Sway”’s courtroom half feels somewhat anticlimactic and might have benefitted from a Turowesque turn. I would argue that anyone who has a sibling, especially if they have a parent prone to anger, will sense a truth to the story that elevates it beyond typical fare. Brothers can imagine the best and worst of one another, sometimes in the same moment. Nakashima wrote and directed this film more or less concurrent with her work in a pair of omnibus collections: “Jam Films Female” and “Ten Nights of Dreams”. Her work in the former is a highlight of that collection, in which characters communicate on both verbal and nonverbal levels, often with differing intents. Both there and in “Sway”, glances are meaningful. I haven’t seen her tremendous critical and popular success, 2009’s “Dear Doctor”, but “Sway” is very good if shy of great.