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)

Dad’s Lunch Box (パパのお弁当は世界一, Masakazu Fukatsu, 2017)

Dad's Lunchbox posterLunch is serious business in Japan, but perhaps those adorable character bento have a dark side, forcing already frazzled mothers to get up before dawn in order to ensure their child’s lunch box will be sufficiently “cute” or risk being made to feel like a cold and unloving parent. It goes without saying that it’s usually mums who are expected to take care of food preparation, salaryman dads are a rare sight in a kitchen, but then a recent phenomenon known as “papaben” has been taking the internet by storm and somewhat normalising the idea that fathers too can channel their love for their kids into visually appealing, nutritionally balanced meals.

Dad’s Lunch Box (パパのお弁当は世界一, Papa no Obento wa Sekai Ichi), the debut feature from Masakazu Fukatsu, is inspired by a viral Tweet posted by a high school girl on her graduation which thanked her father for taking the trouble of making a handmade bento for her every day of her high school life. The Tweet also included a photo of his risible first effort and his final high school lunch box crafted after three years of trial and error. Fukatsu’s film version follows a recently single salaryman known only as “Father” (Toshimi Watanabe) who decides to make the creation of bento his primary method of demonstrating that he is perfectly fine bringing up his teenage daughter Midori (Rena Takeda) all alone.

The film does not dwell on the circumstances which led to Father’s wife leaving and there does not appear to be any animosity between himself and his daughter on account of it, nor does Midori suffer any particular stigma at school because of having a single dad save for the unfortunate quality of her daily bento. Father, having lived a regular salaryman life, is not exactly a great cook and has an uphill journey ahead of him when it comes to mastering the basics let alone creating the Instagrammable lunches of his daughter’s dreams. Taking a few tips from a friendly lady at work, Father eventually realises that for a teenage girl bento are an important social signifier and must, in all cases, be cute. Nevertheless, he struggles with fundamental hygiene concerns that leave him unaware of why you shouldn’t put sashimi in a lunch box which is going to be sitting around at room temperature all day.

The most important component in a bento is, however, love which is why Father started making them in the first place. It’s not so much that he eventually masters the art of cooking, nor that of learning how to make his dishes aesthetically pleasing, but that he is able to connect with his increasingly distant teenage daughter as he does so. Midori, having grown to like her dad’s previously embarrassing lunchtime fare, tricks him into making two bento lunches passing one off as her own work in order to give to a boy she likes and sort of (though incorrectly) assumes is her boyfriend. The boyfriend is, it has to be said, quite cheeky and extremely ungrateful when one considers he’s getting a 100% free lunch every day, but in any case his decision to rudely criticise Father’s by now beautiful bento is the one which finally sets alarm bells ringing in the mind of the romantically naive Midori and her supportive friends. Father remains oblivious until the lady at work helps him out again by keying him in to Midori’s likely source of teenage angst. When giving her a gentle opportunity to open up doesn’t yield results, Father realises he needs to give his daughter space to figure things out, leaving tiny notes of encouragement along with the food to make sure she knows he’s there if she needs him.

In a strange turn of events, actor Toshimi Watanabe who plays the father (previously known as a ‘90s hip hop star) himself made quite a splash in the papaben world when he released a book of his own bento recipes in 2014 crafted for his teenage son through his high school years. Dad’s Lunchbox may be low on plot detail, but it’s high on heart in its earnest tale of a doting dad just so happy to be making headway in conquering the most of domestic of tasks while finding the way to his daughter’s heart through her stomach.


Dad’s Lunchbox was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)