Being Good is full of characters who have never been told that they were good. Some of them hide it well–they have to, in order to function in modern Japan–but the lack of approval has clearly done lasting damage. By the end of the film we feel that some of them might be able to heal themselves, but we also realize that there are no quick fixes.
Being Good feels less edgy and more polished than director Mipo O’s previous (and widely celebrated) The Light Shines Only There. Its characters look healthier, it has a more traditionally heart-tugging piano soundtrack (something that, sadly, Hirokazu Koreeda has also become fond of), as well as a much less violent and grim storyline. But for the most part it avoids the pitfalls of sentimentality and emotional manipulation, letting its characters’ stories speak for themselves through the uniformly powerful and authentic performances from the actors.
Based on the novel of the same name by Hatsue Nakawaki, Being Good is composed of three faintly linked story lines that take place in Otaru, Hokkaido (Light was also set in Otaru, though this version of the city looks much more idyllic). The town is friendly and full of mostly decent people, but we quickly learn that the facade is a fragile one. Young mother Masami (Machiko Ono) is beautiful and poised, but she brutally abuses her three-year-old daughter Ayane (Noa Miyake) in scenes that are frighteningly realistic and difficult to watch. Tadashi (Kengo Kora of Norwegian Wood and Sad Vacation) is a brand new elementary school teacher who can’t seem to get his class under control but manages to form a bond with another abused young boy. The older Akiko (Michie Kita) puts on a cheerful face but is deeply lonely, leading her to strike up a friendship with an autistic boy (Amon Kabe) who passes by her house every day.
As in Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s Sketches of Kaitan City, another collection of linked narratives set in a Hokkaido port town, all of these stories seem distinct from one another, but we gradually get hints as to how all these people are connected–and, in a way, how all of us are connected, even if we don’t realize it. Of the three, the story of the struggling schoolteacher feels the most ripped from the realm of TV drama, with its occasional speechifying about love and acceptance. Even there, though, the performances, especially those of the young children, feel authentic and unforced. Akiko’s story is elevated by the remarkable performance of Amon Kabe, whose combination of frantic hand movements and repetitive speech patterns quickly establishes the character as utterly believable.
The most mesmerizing story by far, though, is of abusive mother Masami, her daughter, and her slowly-forming bond with Yoko (Chizuru Ikewaki, almost unrecognizable after her grim turn in Light), a bubbly and carefree mother of two. Masami is clearly fascinated by and also uncomfortable with Yoko’s easy and loving manner. The story’s climactic moment–when we learn a not-so-shocking truth about Masami and a slightly more shocking one about Yoko–at first seems contrived, but looking back we can see that the seeds were there all along.
Being Good‘s most poignant moments come when characters hear, perhaps for the first time, that they’re not bad people. The mother of the autistic child, who says she’s spent her life apologizing for her son, is reduced to tears when the older Akiko says, quite genuinely, that he’s a nice boy who chatted with her and helped her clean up. Masami, perhaps, is not so easily convinced, but we get the sense that a kind word might be the first step in a very long healing process.
Being Good‘s message is fairly simple–we all need to be kinder to each other, especially parents to children. Too many people never utter or come to believe the simple phrase of the film’s title (kimi wa ii ko / you’re a good kid). What makes both the message and the film more powerful is the acknowledgement that this is easier said than done, especially for those caught in a cycle of cruelty and neglect. Still, the ending is optimistic. At the end of Light, the glimmer of hope was faint. Here, it shines brightly, even if it probably can’t bring everyone out of the dark.
(originally published at Adventures in (Post) Gradland)