Mourning Recipe (四十九日のレシピ, Yuki Tanada, 2013)

mourning-recipeWhen everything goes wrong you go home, but Yuriko, the protagonist of Yuki Tanada’s adaptation of Yuki Ibuki’s novel might feel justified in wondering if she’s made a series of huge mistakes considering the strange situation she now finds herself in. Far from the schmaltzy cooking movie the title might suggest, Mourning Recipe (四十九日のレシピ, Shijuukunichi no Recipe) is a trail of breadcrumbs left by the recently deceased family matriarch, still thinking of others before herself as she tries to help everyone move on after she is no longer there to guide them. Approaching the often difficult circumstances with her characteristic warmth and compassion, Tanada takes what could have become a trite treatise on the healing power of grief into a nuanced character study as each of the left behind now has to seek their own path in deciding how to live the rest of their lives.

Beginning in pitch darkness, housewife Yuriko (Hiromi Nagasaku) answers the phone to the voice of another woman requesting that she separate from her husband who is apparently the father of her unborn child. This double sting hits Yuriko hardest as the couple had been trying for a baby for quite sometime with little success. Thinking a divorce is for the best, Yuriko packs her bags, leaves the papers and her ring on the table, and heads for her father’s house. When she gets there she finds an oddly bubbly young girl, Imoto (Fumi Nikaido), washing her father’s back. Apparently, Imoto has been charged with looking after the house during the 49 day mourning period for Yuriko’s step-mother, Otomi – the upcoming memorial service something Yuriko had forgotten all about in the midst of her personal crisis. When Imoto presents the pair with a book that Otomi illustrated before she died listing everything they should do to prepare for the big party she wants everyone to enjoy rather than solemnly chanting sutras for her 49th day memorial, it prompts Yuriko and her father into a reconsideration of themselves, their pasts and futures, and who exactly should be making those decisions for them.

Yuriko’s position may seem like a straightforward one, betrayed by her husband her decision to leave seems inevitable but it’s complicated by the intricate web of duties and obligations Yuriko feels herself to be a part of. Reconsidering various turning points of her life, Yuriko makes plain that her marriage to the mild mannered salaryman Hiroyuki (Taizo Harada) had been under considerable strain due to the couple’s difficulty conceiving a child. Owing to the intense pressure placed on women to bear children, Yuriko internalises a sense of shame at having failed in this most basic of wifely tasks, leading her husband (she believes) to replace her with a model more fit for purpose. This point of view is rammed home by Yuriko’s insensitive aunt who continues to interrogate her about her lack of children and encourage her to return home to her husband and fix the problem rather than “giving up” and settling for the “shameful” option of divorce as young people are want to do. Aunt Tamako (Keiko Awaji) also points out that neither of her daughters bothered with university or work or any of that nonsense and now have fulfilled their duties by bearing bright and bonny grandchildren with no trouble at all. Heartbroken and blaming herself, Yuriko has to listen to the ongoing lecture whilst keeping her composure right until its gloomy conclusion.

Motherhood becomes the film’s biggest theme as mothers, non-mothers, and bad mothers swirl around the childless Yuriko, still trying to find her place in the world if the path society seems determined to set her on has been well and truly blocked off. Yuriko’s biological mother died when she was only little but happily her father fell in love with and married Otomi – a truly good woman who, like Yuriko, had no children of her own, but lived her life trying to make a difference and help other people to be happy. Little Yuriko didn’t always see it that way and found it difficult to bond with her new mother, settling for the nickname “Okka” – a combination of Otomi’s name and the word for mother, rather than straightforward “mum”.

Reinvestigating Otomi’s life in order to plan for her 49th day memorial, Yuriko truly gets to know her step-mother for the first time, discovering just how big of a difference she made in the lives of those around her. Imoto is just one of the young people Otomi went out on a limb for volunteering at a local rehabilitation centre for young people experiencing problems with addition. She then introduces them to a young Brazilian/Japanese migrant (Masaki Okada) who found himself feeling all alone in a foreign land until Otomi handed him the keys to her car and insisted he get out and about and meet new people. Otomi might not have had children of her own, but she became a mother to the world, reaching out and helping those who most needed it, becoming the springboard so that they could fly far away from her happier and healthier than before.

In learning from Otomi’s book, Yuriko regains her sense of self and a desire to find her purpose, knowing that the ability to bear children is not the be all and end all of a woman’s existence. Indeed even if a woman can give birth to a child, that’s not to say she’ll be a good mother as Imoto points out in reference to the toxic relationship she has with hers which feeds back into the insensitive way Hiroyuki’s mistress talks about her plans in front of her young son.

Given all of these epiphanies and mini realisations, Yuriko’s final decision may seem like an odd one, sending her back into a conservative world bound by all of the same duties and obligations the film spent so long undermining. Nevertheless, Yuriko emerges from her 49 days of mourning with a better understanding of herself and the way she should be living her life. Filled with wit and warm humour, Mourning Recipe neatly skirts its melodramatic nature to present a genuinely moving examination of the true nature of family, motherhood, and the necessity of individual freedom. Otomi’s final springboard action was for the ones she left behind, even if, once again, she won’t be able to see them fly.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

All Around Us (ぐるりのこと。, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2008)

all around usRyosuke Hashiguchi returns after an eight year absence with All Around Us (ぐるりのこと。Gururi no Koto) and eschews most of his pressing themes up this by point by opting to depict a few “scenes from a marriage” in post-bubble era Japan. Set against the backdrop of an extremely turbulent decade which was plagued by natural disasters, terrorism, and shocking criminal activity Hashiguchi shows us the enduring love of one ordinary couple who, finding themselves pulled apart by tragedy, gradually grow closer through their shared grief and disappointment.

Tokyo, 1993. Kanao (Lily Franky) and Shoko (Tae Kimura) have had an “on and off” (but seemingly solid) relationship since their art school days. She works at a publishing house and he’s kind of a slacker with a job in a shoe repair booth. Shoko worries that Kanao plays around too much (but actually doesn’t seem that bothered about it) whilst continuing to attempt to micromanage their entire existence with her clearly marked calendar planning out the most intimate of actions. When Shoko discovers she’s expecting a child, the pair decide to finally get married and begin their lives as a family. Kanao also gets an opportunity on the work side when an old college friend helps him get a job as a courtroom artist for a news agency.

However, their joy is short-lived as an abrupt jump forward in time shows us a tiny shrine underneath the calendar (shorn of its red crosses) dedicated to the memory of their infant daughter. Kanao is the keep calm and carry on sort so he just tries to bluster through but Shoko is distraught and slowly descending into a mental breakdown. If that weren’t enough to contend with, Shoko’s estranged father has been tracked down and is apparently very ill dredging up even more pain an uncertainty from the long buried past.

We follow Shoko and Kanao over a period of nine years. As well as the ever present motif of the calendar, we feel the passage of time through Kanao’s work at the court house which sees him become the artistic recorder of some of the most traumatic moments of the age. Having entered into an era of economic turmoil following the end of the bubble economy, the 1990s saw not only the devastating Kobe Earthquake but also the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground perpetrated by a dangerous religious cult, members of which wind up in court in front of Kanao, tasked with the thankless task of bearing witness to their testimony.

Kanao evidently decided not to discuss his personal tragedy with his work colleagues or, one would assume, his boss would not have reacted so harshly when he made the reasonable request to turn down the opportunity to sit in on yet another child murder trial – either by accident or design, the trials which present themselves to Kanao (and are all real, sensationalised media events of the time) involve the horrific murders of small children with only one of the defendants voicing any kind of regret or remorse.

Meanwhile, Shoko has been trying to get on with life as best she can but finds herself sinking ever deeper into depression. Her uptight, controlling personality cannot cope with this perceived “failure” on her part or of the destruction of all her plans by a truly unforeseen tragedy. Having had her doubts before regarding Kanao’s commitment to her, she finds his lack of reaction puzzling. Mistaking Kanao’s lack of outward emotion for indifference, Shoko finds it hard to continue believing in their shared destiny and wonders if her husband ever really cared for her at all. Kanao is a laid-back soul, someone who’s learned to become used to disappointment by accepting it quickly and then trying to move on. His more grounded approach might be just the one Shoko needs in order to come to terms with what’s happened – never pushing or complaining Kanao is contented simply by her presence and is prepared to give her the space she needs whilst always being around to offer support.

Hashiguchi relies on visual cues to help navigate the shifting dynamics including the repeated use of the calendar as a symbol of Shoko and Kanao’s marital status, the now unneeded pregnancy books bundled to be thrown out, or rice discarded in the sink as a marker of a house proud woman’s slide into crippling depression. Small moments make all the difference from a mother’s bandaged wrists and a cutback to the only person who’s noticed them, to the repeated joke of all the veteran journalists suddenly falling over themselves in an attempt to escape the courtroom and be the first to file their copy. A necessarily sad story, but an oddly warm one as two people worried they may be mismatched grow into each other in the face of their shared tragedy. Anchored by the strong performances of its two leads (particularly Tae Kimura who manages some convincing on screen crying in a difficult role) All Around Us is another beautifully pitched human drama from Hashiguchi who proves himself an adept chronicler of the human condition even whilst stepping away from his trademark themes.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー, Koki Mitani, 2008)

Magic Hour PosterIf there’s one thing you can say about the work of Japan’s great comedy master Koki Mitani, it’s that he knows his cinema. Nowhere is the abundant love of classic cinema tropes more apparent than in 2008’s The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー) which takes the form of an absurdist meta comedy mixing everything from American ‘20s gangster flicks to film noir and screwball comedy to create the ultimate homage to the golden age of the silver screen.

In classic style the film opens with a bunch of goons chasing a scantily clad club owner out of a hotel window. Bingo (Satoshi Tsumabuki) has been hitting the jackpot with the boss’ girl, Mari (Eri Fukatsu), so the two are about to be given a new set of kicks in the latest fashion – cement. Luckily Bingo overhead some of the other guys talking about looking for another gangster, Della Togashi, so he quickly starts talking about him as if he were a long lost friend. The boss, Tessio (Toshiyuki Nishida), gives the pair a reprieve on the condition Bingo tracks down Togashi and brings him in within five days. Slight hitch – Bingo had never heard of Togashi before today and has no idea where to start. Finally, with the help  of some of his bar staff he hatches on the idea of getting a random actor to play the part, seeing as no one knows what Togashi looks like. However, the actor, Murata (Koichi Sato), plays his part a little too well and gets hired to work for the gang all the while thinking it’s just a movie! Pretty much everyone is getting a little more than they bargained for…

If you’re thinking that the oddly American looking 1920s street scene looks a little fake and everyone seems to be overacting like crazy, you wouldn’t be wrong but like everything else there’s a reason for that. What originally looks to be the primary setting for the film is a strange bubble which seems to co-exist with the modern world only its filled with people straight out of The Public Enemy or Scarface who think cement shoes is an efficient way of dealing with traitors. Murata, by contrast, is from our world and is completely oblivious to the strangeness of this movie gangster sound stage universe.

Murata is fixated on the Casablanca-esque final scene of his favourite movie in which a dyed in the wool tough guy entrusts the love of his life to a loyal friend before heading off to face certain death. His own career has not been going particularly well and even if he originally turns down Bingo’s offer as working with a first time director on a film where there’s no script sounds pretty fishy to begin with, circumstances soon find him throwing himself into the mysterious leading role with aplomb. Indulging his long held gangster dreams, Murata becomes the archetypal movie hit-man. He’s giving the performance of his life but has no idea there is no film in the camera.

The “Magic Hour” of the title refers to the twilight time near the end of the day when the light is dying but the conditions are perfect for making a movie. Mitani doesn’t fail to remind us we’re watching a film with constant exclamations of “just like a movie” or “doesn’t this look like a film set”. It’s a Barnum & Bailey world, just as phoney as it can be – but somehow it all just works despite its rather arch, meta approach. By the point we’ve hit Mari sitting on a crescent moon to give us her rendition of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (we’re back to The Public Enemy again) we’ve hit peak ‘20s though we scarcely mind at all.

Though he is indeed sending a lot of these classic ideas up, there’s real love here particularly for those golden age Hollywood movies with their wounded tough guys and beautiful chorus girls in need of rescue. Mitani adopts a primarily theatrical tone which meshes well with the absurdist, artificial atmosphere but always makes sure to leave us a fair few clues in the way of laughs. However, probably correctly assuming we know these films as well as he does, Mitani doesn’t give us the typical narrative that would almost write itself (or allow Bingo to write it based on his own trips to the motion picture house). The “bad” guy turns out to be not so bad, the “hero” wasn’t who we thought he was and none of our central guys winds up with a girl. Beautifully silly yet intricately constructed, The Magic Hour is another comedy masterpiece from Mitani which is filled with his characteristic warmth, mild sentimentalism and plenty of off-centre humour of the kind only Mitani can come up with.


The Japanese DVD/blu-ray release of The Magic Hour includes English subtitles.