Yamato (California) opens on an image of a trash heap, one of those sprawling piles of abandoned flotsam that seem to exist all over suburban Japan, often right next to homes or apartment complexes. Perched atop this pile of junk is a tiny Japanese flag, a pitiful image that will only grow in potency as the film progresses. This is Japan, but it’s a part of the country’s reality that many would prefer not to think about—the poverty and sense of hopelessness that exist in the towns near the U.S. military bases, and the complicated relationship that exists between those bases and the locals, who may resent their presence but are often inextricably linked to them, both financially and personally.
Hanging out in this trash heap is Sakura (Hanae Kan), an eternally sullen teenager and aspiring rapper who retreats to various junkyards to think of new lyrics, though the brief samples that she posts online get minimal traffic and she doesn’t seem to have the courage to perform in public. Sakura lives in Atsugi, near Japan’s largest U.S. military base, which is closed off by barbed wire fences that are essentially a border between two different planets. Like so many people in Atsugi and other military base towns, Sakura is pulled between these two worlds—she’s Japanese and has never left Japan, but her mother is dating an American G.I., Sakura’s daily life is constantly invaded by the deafening sound of military aircraft flying overhead, and she reveres hip-hop.
Though Sakura’s day-to-day life is decidedly grim—she shares a tiny, run-down apartment with her mother and brother with only a curtain separating their bedrooms, her neighborhood is drab and full of trash, and she seems to have almost no friends—Sakura at least has a level-headed and supportive mother and a decent (if slightly eccentric) brother. Thus it’s difficult to decide exactly what she’s so eternally angry about, snapping at her mother and brother and picking fights with another girl in the neighborhood. Then again, being a teenager is all about being angry and annoyed, even if the object of your annoyance might not always be clear.
Into Sakura’s world comes Rei (Nina Endo), the gentle, sweet-faced daughter of her mother’s G.I. boyfriend. Rei has spent most of her life in the U.S. but speaks fluent Japanese and has come to Japan to stay with the family, who are eager to play the welcoming hosts—except for Sakura, of course, who barely speaks to Rei when she first arrives. Rei is persistent, though, perhaps enamored of the slightly more mature-seeming Sakura, and after some initial prickliness the two girls quickly bond.
It’s in these scenes that Yamato (California) really shines. Kan and Endo have great chemistry, and it’s fun to simply watch them feel each other out and enjoy each other’s company. Their bond is precarious, though, and their family relationships serve as a microcosm for the complicated dynamics at play in places like Atsugi. Sakura doesn’t seem to dislike the G.I. boyfriend, but he’s mostly absent, taking advantage of her family’s generosity in asking them to be a sort of substitute family for Rei. Rei, for her part, accuses Sakura of just wanting to copy the U.S., an accusation that Sakura throws back at her, attacking her for being half-Japanese. Whether they like it or not, all the characters’ identities are shaped by their connections to the military base, and to the U.S.’s lingering presence in Japan.
Yamato (California) is most convincing when it’s exploring these complicated dynamics, especially the occasionally enigmatic way that Sakura interacts with the people around her: one of her classmates, her boss at her part-time job (who’s also a kind of surrogate parent), her mother and brother, and of course Rei. It’s less convincing when it focuses on Sakura’s musical aspirations—she’s not a very good rapper, though Kan has plenty of charisma. A bizarre musical dream sequence-like scene near the end of the film also feels out of place.
And yet the film’s flaws could also be seen as the touches that make it stand out in a sea of overly polished, committee-produced, feel-good Japanese dramas. Sakura isn’t a very good rapper, but maybe it’s more realistic that she’s still got a long way to go. There’s an inevitable third act scene of a music competition, but it’s in a drab gymnasium with only a dozen people in the audience. Things come together a little too neatly and sweetly at the end, but there are still touches of roughness and uncertainty.
Yamato (California)’s pieces don’t quite add up to an exceptional whole, but there are enough exceptional pieces to keep things interesting. At the very least, it’s refreshing to see a film that features a piece of Japan and contemporary Japanese life not often on display, a warm and authentic portrayal of female friendship, and a story that, while contrived in its ending, still managing to keep things a bit messy.