A harder-hitting companion piece to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Tokyo Sonata” that might well have been titled “Tokyo Requiem,” “Our Family” depicts a Japanese household imploding under the strains of a crumbling economy. Yuya Ishii’s first serious drama in a career consisting primarily of satirical dramedies demonstrates a new gravitas and compassion: Working with a succinct but powerful screenplay, he conveys his protags’ trauma with spartan austerity, keeping sentimentality in check despite an optimistic ending. While festivals may prefer Ishii’s eccentric humor to this sobered-up maturity, the pic should draw a sympathetic audience on home turf upon its April 24 release.
The family drama is the genre that most Nipponese helmers take on to consolidate their status, but Ishii has gone against the grain since his independent filmmaking days. In movies like “Bare-assed Japan,” “Of Monster Mode” and “Girl Sparks,” the director has turned families obsessed with incest, pornography and other unhealthy pursuits into the stuff of blistering satire; parents are shown to be particularly dysfunctional, even in his more commercial works (“Sawako Decides,” “A Man With Style”).
Following his Japanese Academy Award win for “The Great Passage,” however, “Our Family” reflects Ishii’s desire to shift gears. Adapted from Kazumasa Hayami’s semi-autobiographical novel about a family brought together when the mother falls seriously ill, the film is enhanced by its creator’s personal identification with his subject (Ishii’s mother passed away when he was 7).
With its prosaic title, “Our Family” at first seems derivative of the “aging parents” subgenre. The uneventful life of middle-aged suburban housewife Reiko Wakae (Mieko Harada) is mildly ruffled by occasional lapses of memory. When she garbles incoherently at a formal dinner with her in-laws to celebrate the pregnancy of Miyuki (Mei Kurukawa), wife of her elder son, Kosuke (Satoshi Tsumabuki), it appears to everyone, the audience included, to be the onset of Alzheimer’s.
But when Reiko is diagnosed with a brain tumor and the doctor says she has one week left, the yarn switches course in a riveting manner. Experienced lenser Junichi Fujisawa (“The Great Passage,” Seijun Suzuki’s “Yumeji”) keeps the camera at a distance, with a bare minimum of closeups, as Ishii records the Wakaes’ shell-shocked, far-from-dignified reactions with unsparing realism. Reiko’s husband, Katsuaki (Kyozo Nagatsuka), regresses into ineptitude and childlike dependency, forcing Kosuke to reluctantly take charge. Younger son Shunpei (Sozuke Ikematsu) hides his fear behind a mask of nonchalance. Stony and pragmatic, Miyuki bluntly censures her in-laws for their “irresponsibility,” refusing to chip in financially or even to visit Reiko in hospital.
The real nightmare begins when the brothers discover that, in addition to Dad’s longtime bank loans, Mom has run up substantial private debts. Then Katsuaki drops another bombshell: In order to secure the high-interest mortgage for their suburban house, he made Kosuke the guarantor. While Shunpei squarely confronts his father over his folly, the camera pans over to the open kitchen, where Kosuke sits as if turned to marble; the shot is held for maximum devastating effect, his silent, enigmatic smile speaking louder than any angry retort.
Reiko’s illness not only lays bare the detrimental effects of the bubble economy, exposing the characters’ bourgeois stability as a mere facade, but also allows all manner of skeletons to tumble out of the closet. As Reiko reverts to a state of childlike innocence, Kosuke’s embarrassing past emerges as a cause of lingering bitterness for all. Ishii charts the family’s meltdown with cool deliberation and tightly wound tension, and although the film resorts to a deus ex machina in the closing reels, its messages about facing the music are movingly conveyed.
While Ishii has been kinder than usual to his oddball characters of late, they’ve still tended to border on caricature; this is arguably the first time he’s encouraged his actors to play ordinary people, with no stylization or irony. With a baby face that belies his 34 years, Tsumabuki gives Kosuke a timorous air that shows him to be unprepared for manhood in the face of such enormous sorrow; his gradual stepping up is not just an act of stoicism, but a process of growth the thesp embodies with poignant restraint. Accustomed to playing roles of authority and dignity, Nagatsuka maintains that aura while deftly subverting it as his character’s very human flaws surface. Ikematsu enlivens the intense drama with a dash of youthful restlessness. Only Harada sticks out, overdoing her girlish mannerisms.
Shot on 16mm in Japan’s Yamanashi prefecture, in the district where Hayami’s parents live, the film boasts an aesthetic that’s at once distinguished and natural in feel, evoked by somber lighting and a color palette dominated by black, indigo and midnight blue. Aside from an intermittent soft-rock guitar score, music is barely noticeable.