You know how it is, you coast along empty inside for what seems like a millennia until you finally decide to change your life and life says no, not like that. The hero of Masao Takeshita’s adaptation of the Naoki Prize nominated novel by Yuki Ibuki Midnight Bus (ミッドナイト・バス) must be well acquainted with phenomenon as his attempts to move a new relationship to the next level are scuppered by the unexpected arrival of not only boomerang children, but an estranged ex-wife and in-laws to boot. Caught between two places, two families, and a number of possible futures it might be time to head off road but the courage to leave the familiar route behind is a hard thing to find when you’ve been used to the security of travelling in tunnels.
Riichi Takamiya (Taizo Harada) drives the overnight bus from Niigata to Tokyo. In the capital, he has a tentative relationship with a younger woman, Shiho (Manami Konishi), who runs a small cafe/bar but his attempts to introduce her to his home life back in the country run aground when grown-up son, Reiiji (Ko Nanase), picks exactly the wrong moment to come home after having abruptly given up his lucrative IT job and moved out of his Tokyo flat. Meanwhile, Riichi’s daughter, Ayana (Wakana Aoi), has embarked on a wacky cosplay career and is thinking about marrying her longterm boyfriend. At this extremely sensitive time, Riichi spots a familiar face on the bus one day – his estranged former wife, Miyuki (Mirai Yamamoto), who has returned to Niigata to visit her ailing father and take care of “family” business.
All three Takamiyas are in a sense adrift, never having properly dealt with the abrupt exit of Miyuki who left when both the children were small. As a young scrappy couple in post-bubble Tokyo, Riichi and Miyuki had been happy but when Riichi decided to move the family back to Niigata for a “less stressful” existence everything began to go wrong, largely because of Riichi’s unforgiving mother who made her daughter-in-law’s life a misery. Now Reiji is facing a similar dilemma in finding city life too demanding, but unlike his father he can afford the time to take a break and figure things out seeing as he is single and unburdened by the need to support a family. Ayana, meanwhile, is about to find herself in a similar position to her mother as she discovers when she plans to introduce her intended to her father only to have him bring his snooty parents along unannounced and change the venue to an upscale restaurant more in keeping with their tastes. Poking into family details, looking down on Riichi’s job, and finally making a pointed comment about Reiji’s stress-related skin condition and a “concern” regarding her son’s children being “contaminated”, it’s obvious Ayana and her boyfriend’s mother will never get on.
Riichi is a kind and patient man, though sometimes a little insensitive in his far seeing plan to ensure everybody’s happiness. He bears no ill will towards Miyuki and hopes that she will be able to rebuild a relationship with her children, engineering a plan to bring them together while he helps her cope with the events that have brought her back to Niigata. Meanwhile, he also tries to keep things going with Shiho who has been hurt before and understands the reasons for Riichi’s hot and cold attitudes but is increasingly frustrated by the abrupt changes in his feelings and intensions. Riichi will have to make a choice between past and future, but if he chooses to put his family back together again it must be short lived as he prepares to push his children back out into the world with a little more direction and confidence after having addressed their deep seated familial traumas.
The bus journey becomes a point of transition in more ways than one – between city and country but also between two personas and two ways of being. In Niigata Riichi is “dad”, the family lynchpin, while Tokyo affords him the opportunity to be a “man” in relative freedom, free to pursue a second chance at romance with all his baggage safely stored at home. Like his children he will need to find a way to integrate his past self with his future one if he wants to forge a way forward, but in order to do that he’ll have to accept the risks a putative future entails and make peace with his old life in order to start all over again. A sometimes poignant family drama, Midnight Bus is a restrained affair but one filled with empathy and a generosity of spirit as its various protagonists learn to free themselves from familial legacy in order to pursue their individual destinies with kind eyes and clear hearts.
Midnight Bus screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 11th July at 6pm.
Original trailer (no subtitles)