Being Good (2015)

First published for the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016

“Everyone is so uptight about small stuff!” Tasuku Okano (Kengo Kora) exclaims to his girlfriend, not even noticing that his immature self-absorption is driving her away. In a hilly coastal town, Tasuku is struggling through his first year as a fourth-grade teacher at the local school. He wants to be good, to do the right thing and to get along with – improve even – his pupils, but then a small, simple-seeming incident in which a boy wets himself in class ramifies and escalates, setting Tasuku at odds with pupils and parents alike.

Director Mipo O (The Light Shines Only There) certainly sweats the small stuff in her closely observed, character-driven ensemble drama, adapted (by Ryo Takada) from the 2012 collection of stories by Hatsue Nakawaki. The original title of both book and film, Kimi wa iiko, translates literally as “You’re a good kid” (also a line in the film), but the English title Being Good still very much captures the story’s preoccupation with ethics and education. For each of the slyly interconnected episodes here concerns relationships between children and adults, and the scars, whether emotional or physical, that they can leave.

Even as Tasuku grows into a better teacher, and learns to take more responsibility for the wellbeing of his young wards, we see other characters stuck in seemingly inescapable situations, but then, through the kindly interventions of others, finding a way out of their own impasse. Take Masami Mizaki (Mashiko Ono), who, isolated while her husband is away on business, holds her 3-year-old daughter Ayane (Nao Miyake) to impossible standards of conduct and physically punishes her for any perceived transgression. A news programme in the background, describing a young child’s death at the hands of an abusive mother, clearly sets out the high stakes – while another mother, Yoko (Chizuru Ikewaki), seemingly Masami’s polar opposite in her laid back permissiveness and warmth towards her own young children, might just offer a way out through friendship and understanding.

This narrative of abuse carries over to Tasuku’s classroom, where one boy, Yuta, is being neglected and possibly beaten by his feckless stepfather. When the school authorities hesitate to step in, Tasuku must decide how far he is willing to go to secure Yuta a better future. By contrast, Akiko Sasaki (Michie Kita), single, elderly, and showing early signs of dementia, is haunted by the wartime childhood of her past, until she finds a way to resolve her guilt and regrets through a young, severely autistic boy (Amon Kabe) whose good nature has gone unrecognised even by his own mother (Yasuko Tomita).

The school where Tasuku teaches is named ‘Cherry Tree Elementary’. This is because of the old plants on its premises that scatter their blossoms over the surrounding area, to the delight of Akiko and the annoyance of some other neighbours. The trees, we hear, might even be cut down because of complaints about the mess they make. “It happens every year,” Akiko tells Tasuku in the opening scene, referring to the petals’ cyclical return. Cycles, whether virtuous or vicious, are a key theme in Being Good, as is the difficulty of ending them. Those here who commit acts of violence, cruelty and abuse were themselves earlier victims of such acts – and so the pattern perpetuates itself until the chain is broken by a different kind of act. Goodness is a matter of imitation and emulation, but it needs the right kind of rôle model, which is why Ayane’s desire to “match” her mother (symbolised by wearing the same brand of shoes) is both utterly natural, and alarming, as an indication that she is destined, without some sort of outside influence, to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Similarly Yuta is starting to internalise his parents’ claim that he is “a bad kid”, and needs someone to tell him otherwise and show him better behavioural paradigms.

The film’s contention that the world’s ills can be fixed with love, hugs and shoe repair might seem facile to some – but along the way to this conclusion, O puts us through the wringer with harrowing scenes of childrearing gone awry, while the unresolved ending is carefully balanced between pessimism and hope.

Anton Bitel