Director Daihachi Yoshida made a big splash in 2012 with The Kirishima Thing (Kirishima, Bukatsu Yamerutteyo), a film exposing class differences in Japan through high school students. The flick, which premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival, snatched both the Picture of the Year and Director of the Year (as well as two other prizes) at the Japan Academy Awards. It also took home Best Film and Best Director at the prestigious Mainichi Film Awards and Best Director at the Hochi Film Awards. That’s quite a haul, and one that cemented Yoshida’s reputation as a leading director in Japan. The auteur is now back with a murky thriller with a comedic edge that tackles the issue of the threat of depopulation to Japan’s countryside and small towns. It grabbed the esteemed Kim Jiseok Award at the 2017 Busan International Film Festival, adding to Yoshida’s considerable hardware.

Hitsuji no Ki filmHitsuji no Ki, based on an award-winning manga of the same name, starts off as a community story, but delves into darker territory. Hajime Tsukisue (Ryo Nishikido) is a local official in the fictional seaside city of Uobuka. He’s tasked with integrating six new arrivals into his sleepy berg. While he is chipper and eager to help, the new residents are less than cheerful, more bewildered, odd and sullen. They each take local positions, ranging from assistant barber to caregiver to janitor. Later Tsukisue is informed the six are part of a secret government program to release ex-felons into provincial cities and towns to help repopulate Japan. They must remain in town and clean for 10 years to earn their parole and a new life in place where no one knows them. The jovial official doesn’t give the program a second thought and he’s now excited by the prospect that his old high school crush has returned to the city. He even introduces the youngest of these newly placed citizens, Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda), to take guitar lessons from her.

But then the situation turns frightening. A body washes up in harbor and it’s clear this was no accident. Tsukisue learns all six are ex-murders and the game of cat and mouse is on with the whole city on a razor’s edge. Tense and somewhat overdramatic at times, the flick is an interesting thriller, though not Yoshida’s strongest work.

(English title: The Scythian Lamb; 126 min.)