“Life’s meant to be enjoyed, right?” the fun-loving uncle at the centre of Teppei Kohira’s Ton-Kaka-Ton (トンカカトン) tries to convince his grumpy nephew, but it’s a difficult lesson to learn for a young man apparently so overburdened with loss. Set in a small fishing village in rural Fukui, Kohira’s quiet coming-of-age tale is as much about familial reconnection and paternal legacy as it is about frustrated futures, but is in essence the story of a moody youngster learning to carve a life for himself in which he can stand alone.
19-year-old Nobu has just started work with his uncle Shinji at the local boathouse. Having lost his father at some unspecified point in the past, Nobu remains sullen and uncommunicative apparently not altogether excited about his new job heading off to the workshop alone rather than waiting for his uncle to pick him up. Shinji wanted to hold a party to celebrate Nobu getting a job, but he tries to wriggle out of it and then sits in the corner staring at his phone rather than joining in. He is perhaps a little irritated by the whole thing, feeling railroaded by his well-meaning uncle into an occupation he might not have chosen while also belittled in feeling as if he’s not actually allowed to do very much because he’s still only in training and Shinji keeps stopping him from trying anything complicated. Matters come to a head when Shinji sends him out on a private errand during work hours, driving his aunt to her regular hospital checkup for a heart condition but Nobu, apparently fed up, throws her out of the truck in the middle of the highway and then drives off leaving her behind. Whichever way you look at it, this is unjustifiably irresponsible behaviour, but is all the more galling when Shinji is forced to reveal that he asked him to take her, in part, because he has recently learned he is suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer and has only a few months at most to live.
Of course, Shinji is in part hoping that Nobu will continue to look in on his aunt seeing as they have no children of their own and he quite plainly positions himself as a surrogate father to Nobu following his brother-in-law’s death. Nobu, however, is moody in the extreme and actively resists fathering, apparently irritated by his uncle’s admittedly large personality. Shinji works hard and is an accomplished craftsman, but he also likes to have a good time and is, in Nobu’s eyes, irresponsible, always adding to his tab at the cafe run by an old school friend who knows him too well to expect any better while continuing to smoke and drink knowing that it can hardly make much difference now. Other than his wife, Shinji’s main worry is that he won’t be around to finish teaching Nobu everything he needs to know for the future or continue guiding him towards a more settled manhood.
Perhaps for these reasons, Nobu’s mother suggests that he temporarily move in with with his uncle and aunt so he can spend quality time with him while he’s still around, much to Shinji’s excitement and Nobu’s chagrin. Nevertheless, enforced proximity does perhaps begin to bring the two men together, Nobu eventually scrubbing his uncle’s back at the local baths in a typically filial gesture. “It’s actually quite painful, and that’s proof of life!” Shinji ironically exclaims, though Nobu continues to struggle with his anxiety over his uncle’s illness, cruelly berating him that if he weren’t ill they wouldn’t all be suffering. There’s a kind of projection in his charges of “selfishness” and “self-obsession” as he continues in his sullen denial and resentment, only latterly bonding as Shinji imparts the rest of his remaining knowledge including the proper technique for a hammer and chisel chipping away at his moody facade.
“Learn what you can by watching others” he eventually tells him, as much a reminder to be present in the world as a workplace instruction given in the knowledge he is running out of time. Learning to accommodate loss, Nobu perhaps also comes to appreciate not only absence but legacy, accepting what his uncle left behind in the form of his teaching feeling less abandoned and alone than reconnected with family and history yet also carving his own path as he prepares to move forward into a more settled adulthood.
Original trailer (no subtitles)