461 Days of Bento: A Promise Between Father and Son (461個のおべんとう, Atsushi Kaneshige, 2020)

“This is a story about my lunch every day. Nothing more, nothing less” the hero of Atsushi Kaneshige’s slice of comfort cinema, 461 Days of Bento: A Promise Between Father and Son (461個のおべんとう, 461ko no Obento), claims though it is of course something more than that. Based on an essay by musician Toshimi Watanabe who himself starred in Dad’s Lunch Box, Kaneshige’s gentle drama is another in the recent series inspired by the “papaben” phenomenon of fathers suddenly taking an interest in domestic matters by preparing tasty, nutritious and elegantly prepared packed lunches for their school-aged children. 

Obviously inspired by Watanabe’s real life, 461 Bento opens with cheerful home video footage of the early years of hero Kouki (Shunsuke Michieda) before shifting darker as the relationship between his parents begins to sour eventually ending in divorce. Kouki is given a choice whether to live with mum or dad, remaining behind in the family home with musician Kazuki (Yoshihiko Inohara) while his mum Shuko (Emi Kurara) moves out taking the tree they planted together with her. With the stress of the divorce, young Kouki ends up failing his high school entrance exams and is set back a year, eventually getting in the following spring. Hoping to encourage him, Kazuki offers to make a bento lunch every day for the next three years on the condition that Kouki pledges to not to skip school. 

In true papaben tradition, Kazuki ends up getting far too into the art of bento filling the kitchen with new gadgets while sometimes coming into conflict with his bandmates through investing all of his creative energies in innovative lunch recipes. Yet Kouki isn’t quite convinced by his father’s newfound passion, assuming it’s merely a new hobby he’ll soon get tired of rather than something he’s actively doing out of love for his son. Consequently, he’s originally a little embarrassed when his classmates appear unduly impressed by the quality of his dad’s work though it later helps him make a few friends which had otherwise been a little difficult seeing as he is a year older than everyone else. 

Being a year older continually weighs on Kouki’s mind, adding to the already onerous pressures of high school life his sense of anxiety intensifying as graduation nears. He complains he feels creepy hanging out with younger kids, and insists he can’t afford to fail and risk being held back again even older than everyone else at the beginning of college. Meanwhile he’s lowkey resentful towards his father blaming him for the end of his parents’ marriage while also seemingly ambivalent towards his mother for giving him the choice of where to live unfairly blaming her for leaving him even though it was his own choice to stay with his father. He rebels passive aggressively against his parents’ gentle support as they refuse to pressure him insisting he be free to do and be what he wants, while floundering in confusion over the next steps in his life. 

Kazuki is fond of telling him that everything will work out in the end, life’s not a race after all, only for Kouki to fire back that everything always works out for him because he just does whatever he wants and forces everyone else to go along with it which is why his mum left. Harsh words, but not without truth as new girlfriend Maka (Junko Abe) expresses something similar confessing that being with Kazuki makes her feel lonely and as he lives so defiantly in the moment it’s difficult to believe in the future of their relationship. Kouki cruelly tells Shuko he can choose a father for himself suggesting he might move in with his mother and her new boyfriend, but contrary to expectation Kazuki is serious about fatherhood giving his son the space for his adolescent angst while trying to be quietly supportive through his bento endeavours. 

The papaben phenomenon may be in itself a little sexist in exoticising a perfectly ordinary task just because it’s being done by a man thereby ironically reinforcing the idea that children’s lunches are a woman’s responsibility, but it does undoubtedly broker a reconciliation between father and son as the young Kouki begins to come to an understanding of his father’s love for him, overcoming the trauma of his parents’ divorce and gaining the courage to step forward into an independent future. A heartwarming coming-of-age tale, 461 Bento is about more than a boy’s lunch but also of the quiet power of unconditional love as mediated through the most ordinary act of care.


461 Days of Bento: A Promise Between Father and Son screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Noriben – The Recipe for Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁, Akira Ogata, 2009)

noribenIt used to be that movies about marital discord typically ended in a tearful reconciliation and the promise of greater love and understanding between two people who’ve taken a vow to spend their lives together. These endings reinforce the importance of the traditional family which is, after all, what a lot of Japanese cinema is based on. However, times have changed and now there’s more room for different narratives – stories of women who’ve had enough with their useless, deadbeat man children and decide to make a go of things on their own.

So it is for the heroine of Noriben: The Recipe for Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁, Nonchan Noriben). Inspired by Kiwa Irie’s popular manga, Noriben follows the adventures of Komaki – a woman in her early 30s who gets her daughter dressed for school one morning but secretly takes her to the train station instead where they board a train headed for Komaki’s hometown. Having left her husband who has literary aspirations and consequently no job (the couple were living off, and with, his parents), Komaki has no firm plans other than moving back in with mother. Used to living off scraps and leftovers, she knows how to make her food go further and is also an excellent cook so the unusual layered bento boxes she makes for her little girl, Noriko, prove a big hit with the kids, and later the staff, at the local school.

Hooking back up with a former crush and now local photographer, Komaki ends up tasting the best meal of her life at a tiny eatery and suddenly hatches on the idea of opening a mini bento shop of her own. Of course, it’s a steep learning curve especially for a woman in her thirties with almost no work experience and no real knowledge of how to set up and run a business which is completely leaving aside the need to hone her cookery skills. If there’s one thing you can say about Komaki, it’s that once she’s set her mind on something she will make it happen and so her new life in her old town is just beginning.

Noriben addresses a lot of themes which are becoming fairly common at the moment including the “boomerang daughter” who suddenly arrives home following the breakdown of a marriage. Komaki’s soon to be ex-husband is not an enticing proposition and it seems that most, if not all, of what she says about him is true. He’s a layabout whose dreams of becoming an author are very unlikely to come true and, as his parents seem content to go on supporting him, his promises of getting a real job are most likely hollow too. There’s no real idea of the couple reconciling and when the husband suddenly turns up and starts behaving in an irresponsible way the situation ends in a bizarre marital street fight which does at least seem to clarify for the pair that their marriage really is well and truly over.

Komaki begins a tentative romance with her high school crush Takeo who took over his family’s photography studio though with the advent of digital technology and home printing the shop’s days are numbered. However, Komaki’s uncertain marriage status and Takeo’s diffidence both prove stumbling blocks to the path of romantic bliss and the film seems to imply that Komaki’s own headstrong character is also a problem when it comes to building relationships. Here, the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to say. Perhaps wanting to emphasise Komaki’s strides towards becoming a truly independent woman, it has her side step romantic entanglements but it also seems to declare the need for choice where there isn’t one.

In essence Noriben is a perfectly pleasant, if slightly bland, film that meanders its ways towards a bittersweet ending. Presumably intended to be a celebration of female empowerment as this ordinary woman makes a break from an unrewarding relationship to prove that she can do better on her own, the film only partly fulfils this message as it also comes with an air of sadness and sacrifice where Komaki also has to give up on various other parts of life in order to pursue her dream. That said, Noriben does offer a degree of playful comedy and down home style wisdom that make it a fairly enjoyable, if forgettable, experience.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.