Like many wealthy nations, Japan is a hard country to survive in without being born there. Its system that processes asylum seekers and refugees is particularly notorious; in recent years, numbers of applications have topped ten thousand, and numbers of accepted cases have only reached the double digits. Like the UK, detention centres for those who have overstayed or arrived illicitly – or are suspected of doing so – are inhumane institutions.
This austere, uncertain belonging pervades MY SMALL LAND, a film about the 17-year-old Sarya, as she finishes her secondary school education and makes her way towards university with glowing grades, extracurriculars, and recommendations from her teachers. Her Kurdish family arrived as refugees when she was almost too young to remember, and she is much more comfortable speaking Japanese with her school friends than at the Kurdish wedding that opens the film. After fifteen years in the system, however, her father’s request for asylum is denied, and Sarya’s average teenage life – university, working after hours in a corner shop, and tentatively taking steps towards romance – are thrown into limbo.
“Emma Kawawada’s directorial debut – which she also wrote – may meander, but all pieces set up a full life immediately jeopardised by a single bureaucratic decision.”
Emma Kawawada’s directorial debut – which she also wrote – may meander, but all pieces set up a full life immediately jeopardised by a single bureaucratic decision. The minutiae of Sarya’s everyday interactions throw the contradictions of her life into full relief without heavy-handed emphasis. When Sarya translates for her Kurdish community, her sisters tell her off for enabling the older members to stay separated and not integrate. At school, a teacher and mentor encourages Sarya, saying that not everyone tries as hard as she does. The ostensible compliment has a residual sting, highlighting a precarious situation Sarya’s Japanese-born companions cannot fathom. But the kindness of everyday interactions against a hostile immigration system is not lost, and when Sarya opens up about her strange situation, the reaction from her wider community is a compassionate confusion rather than rejection. It is hard to see the injustices when born into the system.
As Sarya, Iranian-Japanese actress Lina Arashi is in almost every single frame of the film. Her nuanced performance teases out the complications each joy and success brings. She is a star in the making, and without her composure and assurance, the ending would not hit quite as hard. MY SMALL LAND should launch two stellar careers with its astute portrait – told in three languages – of a specific situation that feels transferable in this age of global anxiety and xenophobia.