Miracle In Kasama (Toge no Naka ni Aru Kiseki – Kasama no Kuri no Kinoshita ke)
Japan (2018) Dir. Hisashi Ueda
Home is where the heart is. Many people feel beholden by their hometowns and rarely venture away from them, except maybe for a holiday, spending their entire lives within the same community. This might be seen as being unadventurous or hidebound by sentiment but for some people these memories are to important not to leave behind.
Yuka Shibuya (Mau Nishio) is a struggling actress based in Tokyo, still waiting for her big break with her 30th birthday looming, whilst her mother Mayumi (Tomomi Nishimura) insists she gets a proper job. Every year, Yuka returns to her rural hometown of Kasama to visit chestnut farmer Hatsue (Akiko Kurano) and help her with gathering her crops for the annual festival.
Being recently widowed and displaying early signs of dementia, Yuka decides it is vital she stays with Hatsue. Whilst gathering chestnuts, they find a man (Yuuhi) bloodied and beaten. Yuka wants to call the police but Hatsue instead takes him home, cleans him up, feeds him and to Yuka’s chagrin, lets him stay despite his resolute silence, which makes Yuka think he is dangerous. As Hatsue’s dementia worsens, the man makes a startling revelation.
The full English translated title of this film is Miracle In A Spiny Bur: The Chestnut Family Of Kasama. If you don’t know what a spiny bur is, it is the spiky casing that chestnuts grow in; some of you might be thinking of the shells conkers are found in, but these are more porcupine like, with dozens of sharp spikes protecting these chestnuts. Of course, this is all a metaphor by way of saying “Don’t judge people until you know them”.
Director Hisashi Ueda’s CV boasts mostly TV work, with only two prior films to his credit. There is something quite episodic about the structure of this gentle rural outing, exposed by its brisk 80-minute run time as the story hurtles towards an abrupt conclusion with pertinent facets about the characters left uncovered. In other words, for someone used to wrapping things up inside a strict time allotment, Ueda could have used the extra time more effectively.
Although this really becomes notable in the final act; up until then the progress of the storytelling is relatively steady, with occasional bursts of expedient time jumps to avoid repetition and wasted time on the quotidian activities surrounding chestnut farming. This would be to all the focus to stay on the three skeins devoted to Yuka, Hatsue, and the taciturn mystery man.
Later revealing his name to be Daiki, he is actually more of an integral part to the story than first imagined. The reason for his reluctance to interact becomes clear (though not without a huge hole in its logic) yet despite understanding him, we still don’t feel like we know him that well. Through exposition, we only get half his back-story, thus his eventual personality change happens too quickly to be credible, as heartbreaking as it is.
Which leaves Yuka in the driving seat. Approaching 30 but still dressing like a teen, Yuka is in a grey area between self-belief and being deluded about her talent. When she does get a small role, the harsh criticism she receives is another blow to her ego, prompting a swift return to Kasama. To add some humour to this, whenever Yuka does something out of character the townsfolk of Kasama think she is acting and offer a critique of where she needs to improve.
Ironically, Daiki’s reveal and Hatsue’s increasing dementia puts Yuka in a position where she has to deliver the performance of a lifetime when Hatsue constantly mistakes Yuka for her late daughter Michiko. Rather than correct Hatsue every time, Yuka responds as if she were Michiko; this may sound cruel and deceptive but Yuka reasons the happiness Hatsue feels when talking to her “daughter” justifies having to upset her by recalling the tragic truth.
Similar to Daiki’s change of demeanour, Yuka’s switching tact to protect Hatsue comes out of nowhere when it needed some discussion regarding the possible effects and moral implications of this ruse, as noble as Yuka’s intentions are. We may not get this but the payoff is in how this experience plays a part in defining Yuka’s character going forward, a sort of practical epiphany to make her realise she has to grow up and face the world.
Plenty of tears are shed in the third act which isn’t expected at the start of the film since the tone is breezy and light, the rural setting evoking serenity and languor. Even the drama isn’t so heavy handed as to depresses us; the only time the mood is led is when the otherwise lilting musical score goes into symphonic ballad overdrive to signal when the hankies are required.
But what does all of this have to do with chestnuts you may ask? Well, they are symbolic of many things – memories of the past, reminders of home, community spirit, and the joy of living off nature instead of the bustle of the city. In this case, the setting of a chestnut farm is the catalyst for life changing experiences, and the lessons learned are worth sharing far and wide.
Ueda’s direction occasionally echoes the limitations of TV productions, but generally, he is canny enough to make use of the wide spaces open to him. Yuuhi, from the J-pop group Boys and Men, is a cynical choice to play Daiki but his fans will be swooning as he bares his soul late in the film. Akiko Kurano plays Hatsue with warmth and sensitivity but the real gem is Mau Nishio, managing to be beguiling, adorable, and genuine across Yuka’s journey.
80 minutes is too short for Miracle In Kasama. It needed about fifteen minutes more to get the most out of the characters and pace the final act a little better, otherwise this is a sweet little crowd pleaser which I’m sure will catch you unaware and put you in a better mood.
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