My Dad and Mr. Ito (お父さんと伊藤さん, Yuki Tanada, 2016)

Family. It can be surprisingly hard work. The rootless patriarch at the centre of Yuki Tanada’s exploration of the dissolution of the family in contemporary society My Dad and Mr. Ito (お父さんと伊藤さん, Otosan to Ito-san) is a case in point, “stubborn and difficult” as his daughter describes him to the man she lives with but had never seen the need to introduce to her relatives. He might be impossible, a “ticking time bomb”, but he’s still your dad even if he doesn’t approve of any of your life choices and insists on presiding over your home as if it were a schoolroom and he the headmaster. 

34-year-old Aya (Juri Ueno) is currently living with but not legally married to Mr. Ito (Lily Franky), a 54-year-old school cafeteria assistant she met while they were both working part-time at the same convenience store. Despite the age difference, the couple are very well suited and though they are not exactly wealthy, Aya now working part-time in a bookshop, they have enough for what they need and enjoy a quiet life growing their own produce in the small patch of garden behind their apartment. She is evidently not particularly close with her brother Kiyoshi (Tomoharu Hasegawa) who had no idea she is no longer living alone, otherwise he might not have asked her to take in their widowed 74-year old father for the next six months while his twins cram for exams to get them into an elite middle school. He quickly apologises, but as soon as Aya gets home she realises they have an unexpected visitor. Dad (Tatsuya Fuji) has already arrived carrying a mysterious box and is non-plussed to say the least on having encountered Mr. Ito. Nevertheless, he abruptly declares that he’ll be moving in, announcing that he prefers Japanese-style food, lightly seasoned. 

Dad, as he points out, was a schoolteacher for 40 years and has a distinctly conservative, authoritarian outlook. He’s not been in Aya’s apartment more than a few minutes before he starts criticising her lifestyle choices, though evidently like Kiyoshi he knew almost nothing about her and had no idea that she is not a regular company employee but a laidback part-timer. Obviously, he has issues with Mr. Ito, not least the age gap, but also with his equally laidback approach to life, poking Aya for information by idly remarking on the private lives of baseball players in the paper while she reveals that she knows almost nothing of him save that as far as she can remember he’s from Yokohama and has been married once before. She has no desire to know who he was before he met her and is happy enough to know the man he is now and draw her conclusions from that. 

Mr. Ito does indeed seem to be a very nice man, played by Franky with a characteristically laidback charm. Detecting a degree of hostility between father and daughter he tries to diffuse the situation with patience and kindness, immediately making space for Dad in their lives and trying to accommodate him as best as possible despite his unpleasantness and tendency to correct their “bad habits” such as serving teriyaki sauce with tonkatsu like common people while the civilised settle only for “Wooster”. After an initial period of hostility, Dad eventually warms to Mr. Ito, describing him as “my son-in-law” and bonding with him over manly things like power drills and oversize screws to the extent that he eventually considers moving back to his childhood country home and randomly asks Mr. Ito, but not his daughter, to come too. 

Mr. Ito, however is no Noriko, the child-by-marriage who alone is willing to shoulder the burden of filial responsibility, only someone attempting to mediate a difficult family situation. We realise that the reason Dad has been kicked out of Kiyoshi’s house is because he’s driven his wife Ririko (Sei Ando) into a near nervous breakdown with his tyrannous tendency for “correcting” what he sees as poor behaviour, apparently even criticising the way his late wife held her chopsticks right up until the day she died. His behaviour borders on the abusive and though we have no idea how his wife coped with it, it’s clearly too much for Ririko who is consumed with guilt in having “failed” in her filial responsibilities as daughter-in-law by no longer being able to bear his constant microaggressions, the final straw of which is apparently his attempt to interfere in the kids’ education by demanding they put a stop to the intensive cram schooling and give-up on elitist private tuition.

Aya and Kiyoshi could not be more different, he a wealthy and conservative middle-class salaryman obsessed with money and status, and she a laidback, hippieish part-timer happy to live the simple life. Dad disapproves of them both. After all things were different in his day, but perhaps he’s not quite as rigid as you’d think, quickly getting over his qualms about his daughter living over the brush with a man 20 years her senior while sick of his children’s “pity” and realising that he’s not wanted in either home even if superficially tolerated. Mr. Ito advises him to take some responsibility for himself, but is also keen to help Aya do the same by supporting her desire to take care of her difficult dad even if traditionally speaking the “obligation” is Kiyoshi’s by reassuring her she won’t have to make a choice even if Dad is a definite loose cannon. Capricious to the last, he may surprise them yet again with another unilateral decision but perhaps it’s never really too late to make up for lost time.


My Dad and Mr. Ito streams for free in the US on June 20 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Father’s Day Cheer mini series. Sign up to receive the viewing link (limited to 300 views) and activate it between 2pm and 10pm CDT after which you’ll have 24 hours to complete watching the movie.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Tezuka’s Barbara (ばるぼら, Macoto Tezka, 2019)

The relationship between an artist and his muse (necessarily “his” in all but a few cases) is at the root of all drama, asking us if creation is necessarily a parasitical act of often unwilling transmutation. Osamu Tezuka’s Barbara (ばるぼら), brought to the screen by his son Macoto Tezka, takes this idea to its natural conclusion while painting the act of creation as a madness in itself. The hero, a blocked writer, describes art as a goddess far out of his reach, but also the cause of man’s downfall, framing his creative impotence in terms of sexual conquest that lend his ongoing crisis an increasingly troubling quality. 

Yousuke Mikura (Goro Inagaki) was once apparently a well regarded novelist but has hit a creative block. While his friends and contemporaries are winning awards and national acclaim, he’s become one of “those” writers busying himself with potboilers and eroticism to mask a creative decline. Passing a young woman collapsed drunk in a subway, something makes him stop and turn back. Surprisingly, she begins quoting romantic French poetry to him, and actually turns out to be, if not quite a “fan”, familiar with his work which she describes as too inoffensive for her taste. Mikura takes her home and invites her to have a shower, but later throws her out when she dares to criticise an embarrassingly bad sex scene he’s in the middle of writing. Nevertheless, he’s hooked. “Barbara” (Fumi Nikaido) becomes a fixture in his life, popping up whenever he needs a creative boost or perhaps saving from himself. 

Strangely, Barbara is in the habit of referring to herself using a first person pronoun almost exclusively used by men, which might invite us to think that perhaps she is just a manifestation of Mikura’s will to art and symbol of his destructive creative drive. He does indeed seem to be a walking cliché of the hardbitten writer, permanently sporting sunshades, drinking vintage whiskey, and listening to jazz while obsessing over the integrity of his art. We’re told that he’s a best-selling author and previously well regarded by the critics, but also that he has perhaps sold out, engaging in a casual relationship with a politician’s daughter and cosying up to a regime he may or may not actually support. He’s beginning to come to the conclusion that he’s a soulless hack and the sense of shame is driving him out of his mind. 

Mikura’s agent Kanako (Shizuka Ishibashi) certainly seems to think he’s having some kind of breakdown, though the jury’s out on whether her attentions towards him are professional, sisterly, or something more. There isn’t much we can be sure of in Mikura’s ever shifting reality, but it does seem a strange touch that even a rockstar writer of the kind he seems to think he is could inspire such popularity, recognised by giggling women wherever he goes yet seemingly sexually frustrated to quite an alarming degree. His world view is an inherently misogynistic one in which all women seem to want him, but he can’t have them. A weird encounter in a dress shop is a case in point, the assistant catching his eye from the window display turning out to be a devotee of his work because of its “mindlessness”, something which annoys Mikura but only causes him to pause as she abruptly strips off for a quickie in the fitting room. Tellingly, the woman turns out to be an inanimate mannequin, literally an empty vessel onto which Mikura can project his fears and desires, which is, perhaps, what all other women, including Barbara, are to him. 

Yet who, or what, is Barbara? Chasing his new “muse”, Mikura finds himself on a dark path through grungy subculture clubs right through to black magic cults, eventually arrested on suspicion of drug use. There is something essentially uncomfortable in his dependency, that he is both consuming and consumed by his creative impulses. Inside another delusion, he imagines himself bitten by potential love interest Shigako (Minami), as if she meant to suck him dry like some kind of vampire succubus, but finds himself doing something much the same to Barbara, stripping her bare, consuming her essence, and regurgitating it as “art”. Either an unwitting critique of the various ways in which women become mere fodder for a man’s creativity, or a meditation on art as madness, Barbara seems to suggest that true artistry is achieved only through masochistic laceration and the sublimation of desire culminating in a strange act of climax that stains the page with ink.  


Tezuka’s Barbara screens in Amsterdam on March 6/7 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Caterpillar (キャタピラー, Koji Wakamatsu, 2010)

Koji Wakamatsu made his name in the pink genre where artistic flair and political messages mingled with softcore pornography and the rigorous formula of the genre. Wakamatsu rarely abandoned this aspect of his work but in adapting a well known story by Japan’s master of the grotesque Edogawa Rampo, Wakamatsu redefines his key concern as sex becomes currency, a kind of trade and power game between husband and wife. Caterpillar (キャタピラー), aside from its psychological questioning of marital relations, is a clear anti-war rallying call as a small Japanese village finds itself brainwashed into sacrificing its sons for the Emperor, never suspecting all their sacrifices will have been in vain when the war is lost and wounded men only a painful reminder of wartime folly.

Kyuzo Kurokawa (Shima Onishi) has returned from the war. This makes him luckier than many of the other young men who disappeared from the village over the last few years. His return, however, provokes howls of fear and disbelief from his long suffering wife, Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima), who refuses to believe the creature they’ve brought back from the battlefield is really her husband. Kyuzo has lost all of his limbs, has facial disfigurement from burns, and has also lost his voice and hearing. Sitting across from the remnants of her brother, Shigeko’s sister-in-law remarks that she’s glad they didn’t “send Shigeko back to her family” because she is obviously the one who will have to look after this entirely helpless though apparently conscious battle scarred man.

This being early in the war, the village is in a fury of patriotic zealotry, determined to make Japan glorious again in the name of the Emperor. Far from letting the case of Kyuzo dissuade them from their warlike fervour, his sacrifice becomes a totem. He’s not a man destroyed by war but a “war god” and the pride of the village, a testament to their love and devotion that they would send a son of theirs to war who would return to them even in such a ruined form. Shigeko, quickly getting over her initial revulsion, comes to realise that her husband’s new-found status is also her own. As the wife of the war god, she becomes his voice and mistress in a way she had never been permitted before.

Truth be told, the war did not ruin Kyuzo’s character. The marriage of Kyuzo and Shigeko was never a happy one and perhaps her initial reeling, wailing flight on learning of her husband’s return was more out of fear than disbelief and compassion. Despite a lengthy marriage the couple had no children (perhaps an explanation for that early “sent back” comment), and Kyuzo regularly beat his wife for her failure to bear him a male heir. Now his carer, the roles are reversed as Shigeko babies her defeated husband, lamenting that all he is is urge – sleep, eat, sex. Kyuzo’s needs are animal and definite despite the signs of intelligent communication in his eyes. Shigeko, constrained to satisfy them, bends his need to her own advantage.

Emasculated in a deeper way by Shigeko’s increasing dominance, Kyuzo first attempts to assert himself in resentment at being trotted out to sell the virtues of war in his pristine uniform even as a man destroyed by nationalised violence. Spitting in Shigeko’s face as she dresses him, he attempts to refuse but is powerless to reject her authority. As time wears on and Kyuzo submits to female authority, memories of his atrocities haunt him as the fire which marked his face mingles with the faces of the Chinese women he raped and killed as a brave son of Japan on Manchurian soil.

For Wakamatsu war and sexualised violence are synonymous as the local women train for defending their village by repeatedly penetrating hey bales with long spears crying out patriotic slogans as they go. The flag waving and furore never waver despite the evidence of Kyuzo’s suffering and the numerous young men who will never come home or have done so in square boxes wrapped with white cloth. Only nearing the end is Shigeko left wondering what will become of her war god husband when no one needs a talisman. What will the nation do with these men who’ve sacrificed so much and received nothing in return?

Wakamatsu’s message is an unmistakably anti-war one though the curious inclusion of the executions of the lower class war criminals “hanged by the country they fought to protect” almost undercuts it even if his sympathy lies with those who succumbed to a national madness and have been made to pay a personal price. Kyuzo becomes the literal caterpillar of the title, taunted by Shigeko as he writhes and crawls around, condemned to eternal undulation, but it’s Shigeko who has been in a chrysalis all this time waiting to emerge from the fear and tyranny which has marred her married life into something with more freedom and autonomy – much like a nation waking up and realising that its Emperor is just a man and the long years of suffering nothing more than brainwashed madness.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)