Sarya picked out in the classroom by depth of focus

Modern democracies with a high GDP and high per capita income tend to be either multicultural and multiracial as post-colonial hosts of assisted migration or to have experienced a significant influx of asylum seekers. Japan is something of an outlier. The country has a small indigenous community, a more significant and longstanding Korean minority community and a small Brazilian community tied to migration in the first half of the 20th century and the return of ‘Japanese Brazilians from the 1980s. But until relatively recently, Japan has received only small numbers of asylum claims, very few of which have been successful, partly because the process takes so long. There have been two or three films that have attempted to foreground this situation as a social issue. I haven’t seen them but I was very pleased to catch this new film at the Leeds International Film Festival.

The Kurdish family eating and arguing about ramen – one of the ways in which identity is discussed within the family

My Small Land is a more complex and layered title than might be first apparent. It is the story of a Kurdish family of asylum seekers in Japan and focuses on a 17 year-old girl Sarya, who was born in Turkey but then raised and educated from the age of 5 in Japan alongside her younger sister and brother, the latter still a relatively young boy. Sarya’s mother died at some point in this period. Her father, whose flight from Turkey where he had been tortured as a ‘political activist’– as defined by the Turkish authorities – is the reason for the asylum request. The film narrative begins with a wedding celebration in the Kurdish community (there are around 2,000 Kurds in Japan). Sarya is upset when one of the older women suggests she will be the next to be married and a young man who works with Sarya’s father is seen as a potential husband.

But Sarya has other plans. She is a bright and intelligent girl who had been inspired by the first Japanese teacher she had in primary school and now hopes to be a primary school teacher herself – and to enjoy the life of a young Japanese woman. She was bullied as a gaijin (foreigner or ‘outsider’) but now she speaks Japanese fluently to the extent that she helps others in the Kurdish community in their dealings with the state and other Japanese bureaucracies. As well as her schoolwork and her translation help she works after school in a mini-market. Later we will see that her work and that of her father in a construction company with other Kurds is illegal under asylum regulations. They have survived twelve years in Japan but have still not been granted asylum. The narrative does not present any overt racism or antagonistic behaviour towards the Kurdish community, but because many Japanese people are both ‘conservative’ and ‘collectivist’ (a contradiction for many in the UK), they are unwilling to become involved in any form of ‘illegality’. When Sarya starts a tentative relationship with Sota, the nephew of the owner of the mini-market, we fear what might happen when we realise that her work is illegal too.

Sarya with two of her friends at school. She wants to enjoy being a young woman in Japan

The film is directed by Emma Kawawada and based on her own script. She is not Kurdish herself but Japanese. However, as the daughter of a British father and Japanese mother, she has experienced the role of someone perceived as gaijin. Because the Kurdish community is so small it proved difficult to find actors who could speak Kurdish and Japanese (there is also some Turkish dialogue). The central role of Sarya was taken by Lina Arashi who has many family links to different nationalities – German and Japanese from her mother and Iranian, Russian and Iraqi from her father’s side(?). As Kurds are found across the borders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria she fits the role remarkably well and she gives a remarkable performance in her first film. She already had some experience as a fashion model and her father plays Sarya’s father in the film. She has the figure and potentially graceful movements of a model but the clothes she is required to wear help to present her as a gawky teenager (she was born in 2004 so is the right age for the part). She is also very pretty by Western standards with beautiful and expressive eyes. Perhaps her most effective strategy is to pause before responding to questions or statements from others, her silence saying more than words at times.

The film is also a feature début for Emma Kawawada who after a film school prize-winning short went to work for the production company Bun-Buku led by Kore-eda Hirokazu and Nishikawa Miwa. Kore-eda is listed as an executive producer on My Small Land. Hidetoshi Shinomiya is the cinematographer who in 2021 had shot Drive My Car, Hamaguchi Ryûsuke’s multi-prizewinning film and the other technical credits work well to present the narrative. Post-production was completed in France. The only negative points I have seen about the film are that it is perhaps too long (114 minutes) but as I’ve indicated, I think the pauses work and it seemed just right to me.

The Kore-eda connection is a possible clue to the film’s overall approach as a family melodrama with an underpinning of social issues and a generic mix with the ‘coming of age’ story. Kore-eda has stated his admiration for Ken Loach. I did think of Loach’s realist melodramas as various points but Kawawada doesn’t emphasise the political anger behind the way the asylum process is handled. Instead, she allows the stark situation facing Sarya and her family to emerge gradually and focuses on the intermediary characters like the kindly lawyer who advises the family and Sota’s mother and uncle who are placed in the difficult position of wanting to help but at the same time fearing any dealings with illegality. Although they are not presented directly, there are moments when the real dangers of her situation become apparent to Sarya. The narrative has an open ending with a surprise in the asylum situation. Watching from the UK where the government stance on immigration makes me both boil with anger and weep at the shame I feel to be British, asylum is a hugely important issue. From Japanese reviews on the film I gather that in Japan in 2019 there were only 44 asylum places granted from over 10,000 applications and that the processing of claims and appeals takes several years.

Sota (Okudaira Daiken) and Sarya

The relationship between Sarya and Sota is sensitively handled and I found myself thinking of similar stories and how they are presented in manga and anime. The affecting music score credited to Roth Bart Baron supports the anime feel. Sarya finds herself faced with both the traditional views of her father who clings to his Kurdish identity and demands that she do the same and the Japanese sense of collective identity in a still homogenous society with a sensibility about gaijin.

My Small Land won a prize at Berlin this year and has been well received at other festivals. I enjoyed the film very much and I hope that it is picked up for UK distribution. It is a very impressive début film and Japan needs more films from young women like Emma Kawawada. I look forward to whatever she does next. Here’s the Toronto festival trailer: