Prolific as he is, veteran director Yoji Yamada (or perhaps his frequent screenwriter in recent years Emiko Hiramatsu) clearly takes pleasure in selecting film titles but What a Wonderful Family! (家族はつらいよ, Kazoku wa Tsurai yo) takes things one step further by referencing Yamada’s own long running film series Otoko wa Tsurai yo (better known as Tora-san). Stepping back into the realms of comedy, Yamada brings a little of that Tora-san warmth with him for a wry look at the contemporary Japanese family with all of its classic and universal aspects both good and bad even as it finds itself undergoing number of social changes.
Once upon a time it was normal for the entire family clan to live together, sons bring their wives to their father’s house, become fathers and then grandfathers themselves passing the property on their eldest when they go. After the war everything changed, the return to prosperity brought about a greater need for mobility as well as increasing desire for privacy and individual freedom which saw the domestic environment shrinking.
The Hiratas still live the old way with “difficult” family patriarch Shuzo (Isao Hashizume) nominally in the lead but spending his retirement in the local bar flirting with the mama-san, Kayo (Jun Fubuki), who is gracious, but extremely skilled in her work which often involves deflecting the attentions of the clientele. His long suffering wife, Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), eases her boredom with classes at the local community centre while the wife of eldest son Konosuke (Masahiko Nishimura), Fumie (Yui Natsukawa), has taken taken over the running of the household whilst also taking care of her two sons. The house is also still home to sensitive youngest son Shota (Satoshi Tsumabuki), and a point of refuge for daughter Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima), during her inevitable fights with mild mannered husband Taizo (Shozo Hayashiya).
When Shuzo can’t really be bothered with his wife’s birthday, he asks her what she’d like as a present – as long as it’s not too expensive, he’s not made of money after all. That’s no problem she says, what I want only costs 450 yen. Shuzo’s confusion gives way to shock as he realises the bit of paper he’s just been handed is a petition for divorce….
Tomiko’s reasoning is sound, the position she’s been occupying for the last forty years is, effectively, a job. Now that the children are grown and another woman has taken over the domestic responsibilities, Tomiko wants to retire and enjoy some well earned freedom at last. The decision sends the entire family into a spiralling existential crisis as they contemplate this unexpected development and what it could mean for their previously ordinary way of life.
It would be nice to think men like Shuzo are a dying breed, so gruff and aggressive that his own daughter-in-law almost hangs up on him thinking he’s an “ore ore” scammer. Having worked hard for his family throughout his life, he feels a tremendous sense of entitlement in playing the king of his own domain. Tomiko, by side all these years putting up with his rudeness, selfishness, and inconsiderate behaviour is thoroughly sick of being taken for granted and unfavourably compared to a bar hostess whose job it is to stroke her husband’s ego.
More challenges to the domestic set up occur when youngest son Shota, still living at home into his 30s, decides to move out and get married. The polar opposite of his brash father, Shota has often been the mediator between different family factions which might well have gone to war and destroyed the household long before now were it not for his calming influence. A marriage would usually be a cause for celebration but Shota has picked exactly the wrong time to introduce his lovely new fiancée, Noriko (Yu Aoi), to the family right in the middle of this extended moment of crisis.
Divorce is still a taboo subject in Japan carrying its own degree of stigma whatever the circumstances which makes Tomiko’s sudden bid for individualistic freedom all the more difficult to understand for her family. This is thrown into sharp relief when Tomiko begins enquiring about Noriko’s family background and discovers she is actually the child of divorced parents only to have a momentary flash of distaste or perhaps mild disapproval before getting over it and trying to make her son’s future wife feel welcome even in this quite tense domestic environment. Disconnected from her own family, being suddenly thrown into the deep end with the boisterous and perhaps too closely involved Hiratas might be a little overwhelming for Hirata-in-waiting Noriko but luckily she takes to it well enough and perhaps finds the liberated frustrations of the large family unit a warm rather than intimidating experience.
It is, indeed, hard being a family. Total honesty is neither possible nor advisable and harmony is largely born of mutual compromise but the essential thing is understanding – both of everyone else’s feelings and of everyone’s unique places within the familial system. Like any good Japanese family drama things have to change so that everything can stay the same, and there’s a poignant moment towards the end where we observe the large number of vacant family homes in the neighbourhood where the elderly owners have either died or moved into residential care facilities while their children and grandchildren founded homes of their own. At the end of the day all anyone wants is a degree recognition as an individual rather than as an embodiment of a concept and if certain people are able to swallow their pride, there might still be hope for the old ways yet.
HK Trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)