by Jason Suzuki
Japan Cuts has chosen to kick off their 2016 round with Shuichi Okita's latest film, another story of generational bonding in an isolated part of the world. Once again Okita (A Story of Yonosuke, The Woodsman and the Rain) shows a knack for telling touching, off-beat stories with a good amount of incredibly detailed yet subtle depictions of character connections. Mohican Comes Home also sports one of the best cast families in the grand tradition of the Japanese family drama, of which there have been many.
Eikichi (Ryuhei Matsuda) is the front man of a death metal band with little to no commercial success. He decides to take a break from the band to return to the island home he left many years ago. In tow is his girlfriend Yuka (Atsuko Maeda), who is early on in her pregnancy. His father and mother, played by Akira Emoto and Naoko Ogigami regular Masako Motai respectfully, run a small shop while dad Osamu is the band teacher for a group of middle school students. He only teaches them one song and it's by Eikichi Yazawa. His fandom an annoyance to the bored school kids as well as the name-after son. Eikichi's arrival and news of the pregnancy elicits anger and immediate celebration from his dad just in time for his collapse and eventual discovery of terminal cancer. Due to this, Eikichi and Yuka's visit will become much longer as they stay to take care of the family while also becoming a family again.
The highlight of this film is most certainly its cast. Atsuko Maeda continues to be an exciting presence in any film she is in. Here she is a less-spastic version of Yurika Yoshitaka's character in Adrift in Tokyo. Her wanting to be liked by the future in-laws manifesting itself in absurd and sometimes touching ways, like when she tries to finish preparing a meal after Motai can't finish in the emotional wake of the diagnosis, needing the use of a video demonstrating how to gut a fish. Masako Motai, who was mysteriously absent from Ogigami's 2012 Rent-a-Cat, is always a treat, and the grounded silliness of the story's melancholy is up her alley and she excels in the spotlights she is given. Tudai Chiba who plays Eikichi's younger brother is sure to become an actor to keep an eye on.
The core of the film though is the relationship between father and son. Eikichi's attempts to make his father happy bring out their similarities as well as their differences. Matsuda's quiet portrayal of Eikichi presents the endeavor as one coming from the heart as well as out of familial duty. He is stubborn like his father and sometimes his attempts at making his father's last few months of life are ill-advised or could succumb to his own inclinations. It's a situation that could be played melodramatically simple but is made emotionally complicated thanks to Matsuda and Emoto.
Okita rarely goes where you would expect with each passing scene and moments that you can see coming, like Eikichi taking over conducting duties of the brass band from his father, play out naturally and retain the off-beat yet down to earth mixture of life moments that Okita is proving to be a master of. Tiny details like Yuka wearing a jersey of mom's favorite baseball team pop up every now and then to showcase the growing interactions of this family unit. The sequence in which Eikichi tries to find out from where the pizza his dad had a decade ago came from that his father makes as his only death-bed request might be one of the most beautiful moments in a film with quite a few and from a career that already has so many.
Still in the wake of his epic slice of life masterpiece A Story of Yonosuke, Okita continues to explore change and the interactions of generations in a way that is unsentimental and avoiding of the cliches of the family drama.
Mohican Comes Home opens Japan Cuts 2016 on Thursday, July 14th.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.