Japan Cuts Review: Lonely Swallows


[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

In the two other documentaries I reviewed for the New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts (Golden Slumbers and No Man’s Zone, respectively), the intellectual interests of the filmmakers seemed to overshadow the subject matter. Lonely Swallows, on the other hand, is all about its subjects: the children of the Brazilian migrant population in Hamamatsu, Japan. At its height, roughly 300,000 Brazilians were living in Japan, attracted to the jobs in the auto manufacturing industry.

Directors Kimihiro Tsumura and Mayu Nakamura are almost invisible, allowing their young subjects to describe their situations. There’s no pondering or pontificating, and the questions the filmmakers ask are practical rather than rhetorical.

This emphasis on just the kids is a refreshing change of pace from the previous docs I’ve been seeing, and it even informs the focus of film as a whole. Rather than taking a broad (and perhaps sociological/sociopolitical) perspective on this population, we listen to them express their emotions, which are earnest and genuine.


Lonely Swallows (Kodoku na Tsubametachi Dekasegi no Kodomo ni Umarete | 孤独なツバメたち デカセギの子どもに生まれて)
Director: Kimihiro Tsumura and Mayu Nakamura
Rating: NR
Country: Japan

There are five lives covered in Lonely Swallows, though they essentially make four different perspectives. As a whole, it seems like a survey of the Japanese-Brazilian experience. There’s a gangbanger named Yuri, so into Brazilian thug life in Japan that he’s had “hustler” tattooed onto his hand. There’s Eduardo, who’s working hard but unable to make things work — life as a blue-collar rock song. There’s Paula, a teenage girl who was born and raised in Japan who must now return to Brazil. And then there’s two members of Floor Monsters, a Brazilian-Japanese breakdance crew with rotating membership.

For any immigrant population in a foreign country, developing some sense of community is essential. You’ll at least have people with the same pool of experiences and some common cultural touchstones, and that means less chance of loneliness and alienation. There are different kinds of communities and different ways of establishing them. For Yuri, it’s gang life that brings him the respect he wants, and he gets to roll with his Japanese-Brazilian friends; while for the Floor Monsters, it’s as if breaking is their outlet for everything. Paula has her family, but because she’s moving from Japan to Brazil, her own community is breaking apart.

Eduardo’s segments stood out for me the most. He seems isolated rather than part of a larger community of any kind — he lives alone, his family is elsewhere, and he’s trying to live on hard work alone. There’s constant struggle for him to hold on to jobs due to the economic situation, which caused a lot of hardship for Brazilians all over Japan in 2008. When we’re introduced to him, he’s working 12 hours a day in a factory. Eduardo could have probably sustained the documentary on his own. He’s reflective and candid, and his life becomes more compelling as times goes by. Eduardo’s portions of the film give us a sense of the sociopolitical issues that affect the lives of these people.

Part of me wonders if the filmmakers could have explored the larger social ramifications of the immigrant experience in Japan in greater detail. It would have become a different movie, obviously, and the strength of Lonely Swallows is in its intimate nature and its reliance on the stories of young people and their personal experiences. Yet I’m still curious about the Japanese perspective of the Brazilian population as a whole. Were there historical changes in views of Brazilians (or other immigrants) in the country over time? Did the Brazilian population experience any sort of racism, particularly when their population was at its height? Are there issues with cultural assimilation for the Brazilian population in Japan? Is there any Brazilian culture/Japanese culture cross-pollination? Does Hamamatsu have a hint of Brazilian culture, perhaps a vibrant Little Rio area?

These are macro-issues for a micro-issue movie. Lonely Swallows is exploring something else regarding personal identity and a sense of home and place. And the movie may play differently to a Japanese audience who has a better understanding of the cultural matters concerning migrant populations in the country. We still get some doses of those macro matters. At one point the filmmakers mention that compulsory education isn’t required for the children of migrant workers, which is why many of them drop out of junior high to start working. It’s a fact told in passing but has major impact when it’s mentioned in Eduardo’s segments.

My main gripe with Lonely Swallows isn’t related to the subject matter or the approach. It’s purely technical, which is unfortunate. The film seems very low-budget, with a single-camera set-up that’s almost entirely handheld. Many of the shots are wobbly and not as well-framed as they could have been, which is especially bothersome during the breakdance scenes. There’s one moment of gravity that’s undermined by the mic on the HD camera they’re using: while Eduardo is talking about his plight, we can hear an episode of The Simpsons playing somewhere in the background. (D’oh!)

This might be an unfortunate bias of mine for a little more polish, even then asking for a little more polish might be asking too much. But moments like the breaking sequences or the little snippet of Simpsons audio did make me wonder if additional care could have been taken in the presentation of the material without dulling the intensity of the moment. It’s a tough balancing act of maintaining a sense of spontaneity while also exercising control and composing the scene, and it’s something a lot of people take for granted when watching documentaries.

When the Lonely Swallows is at its most intimate, the handheld style is effective and, oddly, the most controlled. Eduardo and Paula both have some moving moments addressing the filmmakers. It feels more like a confession rather than something too sculpted and mannered. There’s lots of talk about home and dreams, and I began to wonder whether a sense of home exists anymore for either of them. Towards the end, Paula says that the dreams she had in life are over. She’s only 17. Part of this is the expert hyperbole of the teenage mind, but maybe there’s a hint of truth to it as well. Life in Brazil isn’t ideal for her and may not get any better. Eduardo, on the other hand, recounts a dream he had that moves him to tears, but it gives him a sense of purpose. His dream is a reason to live.

For whatever Lonely Swallows lacks in technical proficiency, it makes up for with its honest explorations of these lives. It’s a series of intimate portraits that makes me want to know more about the situation these people are facing. You don’t necessarily feel like you know the people of Lonely Swallows, but you do know where they’re coming from; you’ll be left curious enough to want to know more.

[Lonely Swallows will be screening at The Japan Society on Saturday, July 28th at 5:00 PM]

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.