Though it’s billed as a black comedy, “Wild Berries” won’t have anybody rolling in the aisles: Wry irony abounds in this tale of the disintegration of a middle-class Japanese family, but the revelation of what lies behind the facade of normalcy is anything but liberating. Produced by Hirokazu Kore-Eda (“Maribosi,” “After Life,” “Distance”) and directed by his former assistant director, tyro femme helmer Miwa Nishikawa, pic’s distanced, assured tone is engrossingly enigmatic and cerebral enough to garner further fest play, though it may prove too elusive for arthouse auds.
Action unfolds during about 24 hours on the day the lovely Tomoko Akechi (Miho Tsumiki), dutiful daughter and moral lynchpin of the family, brings her fiance home for dinner to meet the folks. The fiance says he’s charmed by the Akechis’ industry. But, as it turns out, the “workaholic” father (Sei Hiraizumi) has in fact been out of work for years, spending his days riding subways and guilt-tripping former colleagues into giving him money to temporarily stave off loan sharks.
Meanwhile, the mother (Naoko Otani) has been selflessly taking care of slobbering, senile grandpa; she has patiently kept up the effort until this very day, when she turns up the water in the tub she’s scrubbing to drown out her father-in-law’s last gasps.
The whole house of cards collapses at grandpa’s funeral: A drunken moneylender threatens the father, exposing his debt and deceit. The ensuing scandal sends aunts and uncles scrambling for cover, followed closely by Tomoko’s idealistic rich-kid fiance. Enter “prodigal son” Shuji, con man, thief and self-proclaimed savior of the clan.
Helmer Nishikawa has firm control of the film’s odd tone. More than any ethical dilemmas, the parents’ web of lies and betrayals attest to a profound weariness. Nishikawa is particularly good at capturing people at the point when they can no longer expend the energy involved in keeping up a social facade. Their social breakdown reads less as moral bankruptcy than as a power shortage.
Even Tomoko’s nice-girl enthusiasm feels enervated, shutdown and delusional.As the older generation founders in evasion and hypocrisy, it is sweetly conventional Tomoko and her charismatic grifter brother Shuji who ultimately battle it out for the upper hand. Despite the siblings’ genuine fondness for each other, what ensues is a struggle for the soul of the family (and by extension the future of Japan).
Thesping and tech credits are fine. Lensing by Hideo Yamamoto, unnaturally confined to entrances and exits for bulk of pic, gets a lot of mileage out of mystical finale in the woods in search of the fabled “wild berries” of the title.