“A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic” casts a damning eye on the pernicious role alcohol plays in the working careers and social lives of Japanese men. Narrated by the innermost thoughts of a daughter during the 25 years she spends watching her father drink himself to death, Kenji Katagari’s second feature cleverly plays like a quirky little TV sitcom about an ordinary middle-class family before moving into darker territory. With achingly honest things to say about misplaced female guilt, and uplifting messages about female strength, “A Life” deserves to be on the radar of streaming platforms looking for high quality, universally accessible foreign-language fare.
The source material is Mariko Kikuchi’s autobiographical online manga, the title of which translates literally as “My father, who becomes a monster when he’s drunk, causes me pain.” When the manga first appeared in April 2017, overwhelming demand caused the publisher’s server to crash. At the heart of Kikuchi’s story, and faithfully maintained in the screenplay by Katagiri (“Room Laundering”) and fellow male writer Ayumu Kyuma, is a firm rejection of the idea that family members can forgive each other for everything simply because they’re related.
Before the story tackles such complexities, the tone is light and jaunty, with Romany-style accordion music playing as we meet 8-year-old Saki Tadoroko (Tamaki Shiratori). You can practically hear the laugh track as Saki and little sister Fumi (Yume Morita) find their dad unconscious on the kitchen floor and matter-of-factly call out, “Mommy, daddy’s dead.” It looks like a well-worn routine when their mother, Saeko (Rie Tomosaka), enters the picture and all three females in the Tadoroko household drag him down the hallway.
Patriarch Toshifumi Tadoroko (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) is an average working Joe with a decent job in a nondescript company. To keep his career on track, he goes out drinking with clients and colleagues. His best office friend is Kinoshita (Kenta Hamano), a nice guy and teetotaler whose spirits slowly sink over the years as it becomes clear that not drinking means not getting promoted.
When not slugging it down after work, Toshifumi’s getting inebriated and chain-smoking at home with his pals or hanging out with them at a bar run by female owner Sachiko (Tamae Ando), who’s more like a drinking buddy than a responsible server of alcohol.
While Fumi (Yui Imaizumi) shrugs things off and mother Saeko turns to religion before choosing a heartbreaking way to deal with her misery, teenage Saki (Honoka Matsumoto) channels her anger and frustration into creating a comic book. Her thoughts are displayed in speech balloons that reveal her sadness at not having a proper father and growing disgust at having to deal with the consequences of his bodily functions falling apart as alcoholism and cancer gradually consume him.
The script and Matsumoto’s spot-on performance are at their very best when dealing with the poisonous guilt and insecurity manifesting in Saki as she moves into her twenties and early thirties. After she wins a manga competition and hopes for at least some nod of approval, Toshifumi can only rant on about his failed dream to become a writer. When her seemingly nice boyfriend Satoshi (Shogou Hama) — an aspiring writer, no less — turns out to be an abusive tyrant who bashes her for not being a virgin, Saki meekly says sorry and remains in the relationship.
As dark as it sometimes gets, the film is anything but a gloom-fest. Threaded into Saki’s story is a lovely re-connection with her old friend Jun (Yuri Tsunematsu), and Fumi comes nicely into her own when sisterly love, raw honesty and good advice is most called for.
Crisply shot in widescreen by Yusuke Ichitsubo and with top-notch production design by Keisuke Sakurai, “A Life” sticks to its principles and doesn’t produce anything resembling a neat and happy ending. The note of cautious optimism it does offer feels just right.