Lunch is serious business in Japan, but perhaps those adorable character bento have a dark side, forcing already frazzled mothers to get up before dawn in order to ensure their child’s lunch box will be sufficiently “cute” or risk being made to feel like a cold and unloving parent. It goes without saying that it’s usually mums who are expected to take care of food preparation, salaryman dads are a rare sight in a kitchen, but then a recent phenomenon known as “papaben” has been taking the internet by storm and somewhat normalising the idea that fathers too can channel their love for their kids into visually appealing, nutritionally balanced meals.
Dad’s Lunch Box (パパのお弁当は世界一, Papa no Obento wa Sekai Ichi), the debut feature from Masakazu Fukatsu, is inspired by a viral Tweet posted by a high school girl on her graduation which thanked her father for taking the trouble of making a handmade bento for her every day of her high school life. The Tweet also included a photo of his risible first effort and his final high school lunch box crafted after three years of trial and error. Fukatsu’s film version follows a recently single salaryman known only as “Father” (Toshimi Watanabe) who decides to make the creation of bento his primary method of demonstrating that he is perfectly fine bringing up his teenage daughter Midori (Rena Takeda) all alone.
The film does not dwell on the circumstances which led to Father’s wife leaving and there does not appear to be any animosity between himself and his daughter on account of it, nor does Midori suffer any particular stigma at school because of having a single dad save for the unfortunate quality of her daily bento. Father, having lived a regular salaryman life, is not exactly a great cook and has an uphill journey ahead of him when it comes to mastering the basics let alone creating the Instagrammable lunches of his daughter’s dreams. Taking a few tips from a friendly lady at work, Father eventually realises that for a teenage girl bento are an important social signifier and must, in all cases, be cute. Nevertheless, he struggles with fundamental hygiene concerns that leave him unaware of why you shouldn’t put sashimi in a lunch box which is going to be sitting around at room temperature all day.
The most important component in a bento is, however, love which is why Father started making them in the first place. It’s not so much that he eventually masters the art of cooking, nor that of learning how to make his dishes aesthetically pleasing, but that he is able to connect with his increasingly distant teenage daughter as he does so. Midori, having grown to like her dad’s previously embarrassing lunchtime fare, tricks him into making two bento lunches passing one off as her own work in order to give to a boy she likes and sort of (though incorrectly) assumes is her boyfriend. The boyfriend is, it has to be said, quite cheeky and extremely ungrateful when one considers he’s getting a 100% free lunch every day, but in any case his decision to rudely criticise Father’s by now beautiful bento is the one which finally sets alarm bells ringing in the mind of the romantically naive Midori and her supportive friends. Father remains oblivious until the lady at work helps him out again by keying him in to Midori’s likely source of teenage angst. When giving her a gentle opportunity to open up doesn’t yield results, Father realises he needs to give his daughter space to figure things out, leaving tiny notes of encouragement along with the food to make sure she knows he’s there if she needs him.
In a strange turn of events, actor Toshimi Watanabe who plays the father (previously known as a ‘90s hip hop star) himself made quite a splash in the papaben world when he released a book of his own bento recipes in 2014 crafted for his teenage son through his high school years. Dad’s Lunchbox may be low on plot detail, but it’s high on heart in its earnest tale of a doting dad just so happy to be making headway in conquering the most of domestic of tasks while finding the way to his daughter’s heart through her stomach.
Dad’s Lunchbox was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.
Original trailer (no subtitles)