Director Yoshihiro Nakamura once again returns with another adaptation of a Kotaro Isaka novel; The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker. Having previously adapted Fish Story (also available from Third Window in the UK and itself a very fine film) and Golden Slumber, Nakamura and Isaka seem to have formed a very effective working relationship and this latest effort is another very welcome instalment from the duo. Elliptical, melancholic and thought provoking, The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker is a minor gem and every bit as whimsical as its name would suggest.
Shiina (Gaku Hamada) has just left the small town shoe shop his parents own to study law in Sendai. Moving into his new apartment he attracts the attention of his neighbour, Kawasaki (Eita), who overhears him signing Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind. Kawasaki is himself a great admirer of Dylan, remarking that his is ‘the voice of God’. Aloof, cold, at once dominating and indifferent, the prospect of Kawasaki developing a friendship with the mild mannered, short and shy Shiina seems an odd one but nevertheless the two seem to develop a bond. Kawasaki therefore proposes Shiina help him with a rather peculiar problem - Shiina’s other neighbour, who rudely rebuffed Shina’s introduction and moving in present is apparently a foreigner (Bhutanese to be precise) and although able to speak fluent Japanese cannot read. He’s particularly perplexed by the difference between ‘ahiru’ - the native duck, and ‘kamo’ - the foreign duck and is sure that if he had a good dictionary he’d be able to understand the two fully and thus perfect his Japanese. To this end Kawasaki has decided to steal a Kanji Garden Dictionary for him and wants Shiina to help. Understandably confused, Shiina originally declines but is soon bamboozled into helping anyway. There’s a lot more to all of this than a simple semantic quandary though and the only thing that’s clear is that Shiina has gone and gotten himself embroiled in someone else’s story.
‘That sounds like something you just made up’ is one of the first things Shiina says to Kawasaki, and indeed everything about him seems studied or affected in someway as if he were reciting someone else’s lines - essentially performing the role of himself. Half of the crazy stuff he comes up with, like his warning Shiina to avoid a particular pet shop owner completely out of the blue, sounds as if he’s just invented it on the spot for a laugh were it not for his distant and humourless manner. Without spoiling the plot too much, you start to get the feeling that there’s really something slightly off about everything you’re being told, that crazy as it seems it is the truth in one sense but perhaps not in another. This is where the mystery element of the film begins to kick in - who is Kawasaki really? What is he on about? Is any of this really happening?
Wistful in tone, The Foreign Duck is only partly a mystery; it’s also a bittersweet coming of age tale and an - admittedly light - examination of the Japanese attitude to foreignness. Away from home for the first time, Shiina is obviously keen to strike out on his own and be his own his own person but at the same time he wants to fit in and be liked by his classmates. A particularly telling incident occurs when a confused Indian woman tries to get some information at a bus stop only to be ignored by those waiting. Shiina seems to feel as if he ought to help her but, having just heard two of his classmates complaining about ‘stupid foreigners’, does nothing. Feeling guilty he tries to reach out to his Bhutanese neighbour but is again rebuffed. Kawasaki wants to know the difference between the foreign duck and the native one - is there such a fundamental difference? As one character says, ‘you wouldn’t have talked to me if you’d known I was a foreigner’. ‘Of course I would’ Shiina replies; ‘no, you wouldn’t have’ his friend responds with resignation. Isn’t it better to just help those who need it, whoever or whatever they happen to be?
The Foreign Duck maybe a little darker than its title suggests but its tone is definitely to the wistful/whimsical side - this juxtaposition might irritate some who’d rather a more straightforward mystery or a lighter, more conventional comedy but its refusal to conform is precisely what makes it so charming. That it also manages to pack in a decent amount of social commentary in an interesting way is to its credit, as is its ability to make the totally bizarre seem perfectly natural. The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin locker is another impressive feature from the creators of Fish Story, and fans of that earlier film will certainly not be disappointed by their latest work.