By Diana Cheng
CALGARY (July 9, 2016) — Acclaimed as the 2015 Village Voice Best Film Festival award winner, the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) entered its 15th year, screening 51 features from June 22 to July 9, 2016. The popular film event over the past 18 days offered an array of productions from Asian countries including China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia.
Among the works in the official selections, several touch on the topic of the modern family and marital relationship. Yoji Yamada’s “What a Wonderful Family!” is a delightful take on the subject.
The Japanese family has come a long way since Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” (1953). As post-war Japan headed towards urbanization, Ozu painted emerging cracks in the traditional family unit. In his classic work “Tokyo Story”, we see married, adult children leading a life of their own, living separately from their elderly parents who are taken merely as an obligation or duty. So it is interesting to see veteran director Yoji Yamada’s contemporary perspective in his latest film “What a Wonderful Family!”.
Over sixty years after “Tokyo Story”, Yamada depicts in this comedy a family with three generations living under one roof. Ozu would have been surprised. Are there cracks? Certainly. At the very start, seventy-three year-old Shuzo Hirata (Isao Hashizume) comes home from his golf game and watering hole to realize it is his wife Tomiko’s (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) birthday. For years, he has ignored the day but this time he offers to give her a gift. Tomiko asks for a gift that costs a minimal amount of money: 450 Yen to register a divorce document. Could this be the effect of the empowering novel writing course she has been taking?
There goes the inciting incident that drives this household into chaos. While it may be common to see divorces in modern Japan, to have the grandparents of your two sons splitting after almost 50 years of marriage is a different story. Shuzo’s eldest son Konosuke (Masahiko Nishimura) is concerned but then again, not entirely letting the matter overtake his upcoming business trip to Shanghai. So it’s up to his wife Fumie (Yui Natsukawa) to call a family meeting.
As for Konosuke’s son Kenichi (Takanosuke Nakamura), he is ecstatic that Dad can’t make it to his baseball game due to the important family meeting: no more embarrassing, animated cheering from the stand. So much for father-son bonding time. Tagging along is younger brother Nobusuke (Ayumu Maruyama). Looks like he has a stronger tie with Grandma than mom, for it is his Grandma that he phones at the game when Kenichi hits a home run. No generation gap there.
Coming home to the important family conference is daughter Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima), with her husband Taizo (Shozo Hayashiya), only to show their own relational conflicts at the meeting. So we see three couples having difficulties communicating come together to talk it over, and that includes the subject of the agenda, the elderly parents. Nothing of such openness in Ozu’s time.
Then there’s the youngest, unmarried son Shota (Satoshi Tsumabuki) unknowingly bringing his girlfriend Noriko (Yu Aoi) home to meet his parents as the meeting convenes. First thought: what a pleasure, you all come to meet my fiancé? No, just happens that all family members gather here to discuss the divorce of our parents. But no inconvenience, fiancé Noriko can stay. Noriko knows what it is like, for her parents are divorced. And she is all appreciative of the Hirata family, for unlike her own, they at least come together and talk, shouting aside.
Future daughter-in-law Noriko turns out to be a parallel of Setsuko Hara’s loyal role in “Tokyo Story”. Even though not a blood relative, she is the most caring. Can it be any more obvious, as the two share the same name Noriko? But of course, Yamada has made an updated version of Ozu’s classic two years ago with “Tokyo Family”, he must have had the Master’s classic in mind while making this one.
Yamada crafts his newest work on the Japanese family with a traditional style of storytelling. The film is well edited with a pleasing pace, the cast contributing to the fun immensely by their convincing performance, delivering laugh-out-loud humor and slapstick actions in perfect timing. Who knows that an exercise ball can play a role in the family conference? The family dog Toto makes one endearing member of the cast as well. Overall, a delight to watch.
Not giving out the spoiler of the ending is a good way to let the viewer enjoy. So, take this as my admiration of Yamada’s point of view and not a spoiler. Despite conflicts and miscommunications, the family still stands, and the two grandsons can rest assured that their applications to any good school will not be hindered when they fill in their family history.