09:38 - 15th May 2013, by David West

The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker

Shiina (Gaku Hamada) arrives in Sendai from his home in Tokyo to start his first year at Aoba University. The son of a shoemaker, he wants to study law rather than have to take over the family business. The first person he meets in Sendai is his new next door neighbour, Kawasaki (Eita), who is older, cooler and more confident than Shiina, yet the two have one thing in common - they both like Bob Dylan and his song 'Blowin' In The Wind'. As Shiina settles into student life, Kawasaki tries to convince him to help him steal a Japanese dictionary from a book shop to give to their other neighbour, who is originally from Bhutan. At the same time, Kawasaki tells Shiina that if he ever meets a pet shop owner called Reiko (Nene Otsuka), he must not believe a word she says.

Adapted from a novel by Kotaro Isaka, The Foreign Duck (as it shall henceforth be known) was directed by Yoshihiro Nakamura and released in Japan in 2007. Two years later, Nakamura made Fish Story, which Third Window has already released here. There is a good deal of common ground between the two. They share the actor Gaku Hamada; in both there is a song that is a central device in the plot; and the same events are seen more than once in each film, with every viewing revealing something different about what actually took place.

Fish Story had its darker moments, but The Foreign Duck is much bleaker. It starts out fairly light, as Shiina stumbles through the start of term, trying to remember which textbooks he needs and getting to know his strange neighbour. The second half of the film, after a major revelation about one of the characters, is much grimmer, dealing with illness, death, revenge, and a trio of young thugs who abuse animals. The first half of the story can feel as though it lacks much momentum at times, but the second half is much more powerful. The script addresses an issue rarely acknowledged onscreen - the knee-jerk racism of most Japanese people to foreigners living in Japan. The prejudice is so ingrained that Japanese has two words for duck, with one specifically for non-Japanese ducks. "I don't like foreigners," remarks one of Shiina's classmates when they encounter an Indian woman at a bus stop, "I just don't get them." This ingrained attitude has unforeseen and disastrous consequences.

The biggest difference between this film and Fish Story is that the latter is about redemption, while The Foreign Duck lacks that sense of optimism. This is a movie about compromised ideals, social breakdown and unfulfilled dreams. One of Shiina's friends boasts about how he was born to race despite the fact he does not even have a driving licence, never mind owning an actual car.

The cast all deliver solid performances. Gaku Hamada looks suitably naive and impressionable; Eita shows a strong range and possesses the necessary charisma for Kawasaki, while Nene Ohtsuka projects a prickly but brittle exterior as Reiko.

The Foreign Duck is a sombre film that takes some time to get going, but once it does, it becomes a darkly engrossing look at the people falling through the cracks in Japanese society.
SCORE: 4/5
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