By accident or design, Naoko Ogigami’s career has existed to one side of Japan’s most representative genre, the family drama, in making a clear choice to embrace unusual or self defined family units. In Kamome Diner, a disparate group of runaway Japanese people became a kind of makeshift family and forged a mini-community with the friendly local Finns. Following the brief holiday sojourn of Megane, Ogigami returns abroad but this time to North America for her first English language feature. Once again it’s a tale of misfits learning how to fit, but it’s also a tale of the true nature of family which extends far further than mere blood relation.
30-something Ray (Alex House) is a hyper rational scientist who rejects all forms of emotion and attachments. Thus, he’s doing pretty OK even though his mother died just over a week ago. His siblings, neurotic poetess Lisa (Tatiana Maslany), and agoraphobic former pianist Maury (David Rendall) are not taking it quite as well. The other problem is that shortly before she died, Ray’s mother spent a lot of money tracking down her own long lost Japanese mother who is still living with them but speaks no English and and is still very affected by the death of the daughter she’d only just reconnected with. Ray resents having to look after “baa-chan” (Masako Motai) – a woman he’s hardly spoken to and has no connection with, but cannot exactly throw her out.
Ray, a rare male protagonist in an Ogigami film, is an emotionally repressed geek who pours all of his love and affection into collecting plastic Gundam models. Ironically enough, Ray, or”Rei” actually means “cold” in Japanese which is what his siblings often brand him. More “adult” than the others, he’d long left the family home and was barely present during his mother’s final days leaving Lisa and Maury to deal with everything alone. A sudden accident forces him to return and reassume his big brother role in trying to take care of the floundering Lisa and the fragile Maury.
After suffering a breakdown during a concert some years previously, Maury has been unable to leave the house. Discovering his mother’s old-fashioned sewing machine, he finds a new lease on life with an additional form of expression on top of his musicality. With Baa-chan’s help, he figures out how to use the machine and begins making skirts just like the ones his mother wears in the family photos, which he later wears for no particular reason other than it pleased him to do so.
Lisa, by contrast, seems set to walk a darker path after falling for a snarky, nihilistic poet from her creative writing class. His violent negativity seems to gel with her ongoing malaise, but all he really offers her is his own insecurities and embittered rigidity. Rediscovering the capacity to choose something else, Lisa finally finds the will to do something real and then asks baa-chan to help her triumph by doing something that’s sort of fake but will take her on the kind of journey she’s been looking for.
Having started out cold, distant, and resentful, Ray is brought back into the familial fold by accidentally bonding with his siblings in trying to understand Baa-chan. Played by Ogigami regular Masako Motai, Baa-chan never speaks but seems to understand what’s going on with her grandchildren on an instinctual level. Ray, half-hoping Baa-chan isn’t their real grandma, weighs up paying for a DNA test but ends up finding out more about himself than his other family members. Baa-chan maybe a kind of unknowable deity, hovering around the edges of the family with a giant wallet and wise smile, but she does seem to know what it is the orphaned siblings need and determines to gently nudge each of them in the right direction.
Deliberately moving away from Ogigami’s trademark style, Toilet adopts an even more heightened, detached approach than that seen in Megane but possibly suffers from hovering on the edges of on an established American-style of ironic comedy rather than striking a unique tone of its own. The toilet of the title refers to the well known Japanese “washlet” which becomes an unlikely point of connection between Ray and Baa-chan as he becomes increasingly intrigued by the strange sigh of disappointment she lets out each time she leaves their bathroom. Where take-away sushi failed, homemade gyoza and patience win out as Baa-chan imparts her silent wisdom in allowing the family to find themselves and each other in an atmosphere of unconditional love and support.
Original trailer (English with Japanese subtitles)