My Small Land
Photo: © ︎2022 'My Small Land' Production Committee

‘My Small Land’ is a coming-of-age drama about asylum seekers in Japan

Director Emma Kawawada’s debut feature film is a fictional story rooted in an unsettling reality

Emma Steen
Written by
Emma Steen
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Few people are aware of the bleak realities of being an asylum seeker in Japan. Ibaraki-born filmmaker Emma Kawawada is seeking to change that with her debut feature ‘My Small Land’. The 30-year-old, who was the assistant director in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ‘The Third Murder’ (2017), premiered her movie at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and is set to release it in Japanese cinemas on May 6. While it may be her first full-length production, Kawawada hits all the right notes in this sensitive social drama with cinematography by Hidetoshi Shinomiya (‘Drive My Car’). 

A fictional story centred on the real experiences of Kurdish refugees in Japan, Kawawada’s film divulges the most brutal aspects of Japan’s steely immigration policies while humanising those who are at the mercy of these flawed systems. It’s a deeply personal story about a very small group of people, but its themes of identity, multiculturalism, family and coming-of-age element will resonate with larger audiences. 

My Small Land
Photo: © ︎2022 'My Small Land' Production Committee

The film follows a 17-year-old Kurdish refugee in Japan named Sarya (Lina Arashi), who lives in Saitama with her father and two younger siblings. Sarya has lived in Japan for most of her life. She dreams of becoming a school teacher and is in the middle of preparing for university. Her plans quickly fall apart, however, when her father’s application for refugee status is rejected with no explanation and the family's zairyu residence cards become void. 

My Small Land
Photo: © ︎2022 'My Small Land' Production Committee

Suddenly, Sarya’s family is thrown into a limbo. Lina’s father is ordered to stop working and the family is forbidden from going beyond the borders of Saitama. While the family lawyer offers limp encouragement to reapply for refugee status, the weight of her situation soon grows too much for Sarya to bear. Eventually, Sarya begins to confide in a boy called Sota (Daiken Okudaira), who is another part-timer at the convenience store Sarya works at. 

My Small Land
Photo: © ︎2022 'My Small Land' Production Committee

There are a few surprises here: though Lina Arashi (Kahafizadeh) pulls off an impressive first time performance opposite Okudaira (‘Mother’), she’s not the film’s only talented newcomer. Arashi’s father and her two younger siblings auditioned for parts in the film and were each selected to play their designated roles as Sarya’s family members. Arashi and her family don’t have Kurdish roots, but this was a deliberate choice by Kawawada to protect the identity of real Kurdish refugees in Japan whose safety could potentially be put at risk by appearing in such a project. 

My Small Land
Photo: © ︎2022 'My Small Land' Production Committee

The film doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing what it's like to be a non-Japanese national who's lived the majority of their life in Japan. Despite Sarya’s assimilation to Japan, she still gets prompted by strangers about her plans to return to her home country, or labelled as a foreigner. The director decided that Lina was right for the role when she asked the actress what her nationality was. The actress, who is of German, Iranian, Russian, Iraqi and Japanese heritage, responded by saying that her first instinct was to say she was Japanese but felt hesitant to do so because most people don’t perceive her to be Japanese. Kawawada felt that anyone that could understand the nuances and complexities of such identity struggles was fit to play Sarya’s part. 

My Small Land
Photo: © ︎2022 'My Small Land' Production Committee

When it came to directing Lina Arashi’s siblings, Kawawada took a page out of Kore-eda’s book. To capture the child actors’ genuine reactions, she opted not to give them scripts before filming their scenes. Some parts, like the unnerving moment when the family’s residence cards were hole punched in front of them, prompted shocked reactions from the younger Kahafizadehs (age 7 and 14 in the film) who were left to improvise their lines. 

My Small Land
Photo: © ︎2022 'My Small Land' Production Committee

‘My Small Land’s’ release comes at a critical time as the global refugee crisis grows even more desperate in the midst of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. There are lessons to be learned here, not just of the ugly truth behind Japan’s shortcomings in its refugee aid but also the much needed reminder of the kind of compassion required to hold humanity together. 

‘My Small Land’ will be released in Japanese cinemas on May 6.

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