by Jason Suzuki
It's the middle of the night. The head of the household stumbles in drunk, as loud as his altered wits will allow. His daughter-in-law rushes over with polite finger wagging. It's a typical night in the Japanese family drama except now the daughter-in-law is asking whether the old man got her text. Veteran director Yoji Yamada's latest is traditional through and through and feels very little need for much further "updating."
In one household sits three generations of the Hirata family, with the members of the family who have moved out visiting frequently. Isao Hashizume plays Shuzo, the retired old man who spends his time doing what he wants to do: mainly frequenting his favorite bar, chatting up the hostess, and coming home drunk. On the night of his wife's birthday, which he forgot with no sense of guilt, he asks what she wants. And it better be cheap! When he finds out it will only cost a few bucks it piques his interest. With a smile on her face she hands him the divorce papers and resumes folding his laundry.
The request ends up sending a shock through the whole family, and their intertwining lives and preoccupations must come to a halt to address the issue. Even other threats of divorce are put on the back burner to deal with grandma and grandpa. It all leads to the film's core set piece: the family intervention. Yamada being either by the numbers or a veteran beyond frills depending on whether you are a detractor or a fan, stages the scene quietly, letting the actors shine. It's the film's most intricate moment and well worth sitting through at times overly familiar buildup in order to see it.
The film acts as sort of a reunion of a surprising amount of people from Yamada's sort-of remake of Tokyo Story in 2013 Tokyo Family. The two standouts are the young couple played by Yu Aoi and Satoshi Tsumabuki, both recent Yamada regulars. Everyone gets to have their moments; Masahiko Nishimura who plays the father we barely see in the film until about halfway through gets to playfully react to hearing his sons excitement that their father can't come to eldest's baseball and embarrass him with his loud behavior. Instead of searching for the pathos in the moment, or a sense of realization, he just brushed it off with a frustrated curse.
Despite being considered a "classic" filmmaker, Yamada still holds reverence to the most prolific director of family dramas: Ozu. Beyond the situational references, in a pivotal scene between Shuzo and Tomiko, Shuzo is watching the most obvious, despite its greatness, of Ozu's work: Tokyo Story. Yamada's film is so light and inconsequential it's hard to tell if this is just simple homage or is meant to add understanding to the scene. It's not the most intellectually exciting of films but it is exceedingly pleasant, for better or for worse.
Like some of his other recent work, i.e. The Little House (2014), What a Wonderful Family! is not meant for close scrutinization, or is didactic to the slightest degree. These are playful and sincere stories being told by an 84 year old man who still finds joy in the filmmaking process. That joy is evident in the playful nature of this film. Its use of comedic, non-diegetic sound effects and how bursts of anger always seem to send someone in the background toppling over and unable to get up, make this film engagingly anachronistic. It's modern life filtered through the conventions and observations of films now almost half a century old.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.
All photos ©2016 "What a Wonderful Family!" Film Partners