The Scythian Lamb is based on a manga, and we’re told it’s a dark comedy. It’s about a social experiment being conducted in a quiet seaside town where six mysterious people have been bussed in to live there. The earnest young city clerk is assigned to receive them and make sure they’re settled in, and his boss tells him what the deal is. They’re all convicted murderers who have been deemed low-risk and have agreed to live and work in the town for 10 years, after which they will be free.
This is a secret pilot program the government is testing out to solve two problems at once: to lower the prison population and repopulate dying remote towns. There’s the aging Yakuza, the sheepish barber who once slit a man’s throat; the hood with the chip on his shoulder; the woman who killed her husband by accident during sex; the woman who killed her abusive family member; and the polite but slightly robotic young man.
Of course, not everything goes smoothly, otherwise there would be no drama. Soon a dead body turns up, and the townsfolk get uneasy. Rumours and gossip spread through the town about the six new peoples’ backgrounds. The woman falls in love with the clerk’s retiree father. The ex-Yakuza slowly finds acceptance in the community. The barber slowly finds peace. The survivor dutifully buries dead animals for the local children while working as a trash collector. The hood wants to get back to running scams as soon as he can. Then there’s the young man who befriended the clerk. Is he really reformed and low-risk, or is he really a sociopath doomed to kill again if pushed? All this under watchful eye of the pagan god statue whose legend founded the town, whose story is re-enacted in an annual cleansing ritual that might end up opening up even more cans of worms.
This movie tries to tackle big issues about community, morality, and whether people can change, which are common themes in many Japanese manga. It’s billed as a dark comedy, but I didn’t find it particularly funny.
In my experience, manga and anime are often obsessed with themes of morality and empathy and evil, often with an unsubtle sense of shock and disbelief that evil exists. That seems to be what distinguishes stories for young people from stories for adults. This movie wants to be a story for adults, but its naïve earnestness and predictable pessimism just feels utterly generic. The style it’s shot in – wide, long, quiet austere shots that seem to just observe the characters – is also a generic affect that a lot of Japanese movies employ. It’s trying to be deep but in the end, it’s just dimestore philosophizing that’s totally predictable and the type of thing you’d find in a freshman college paper.