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)

Sumikkogurashi: Good To Be In The Corner (映画 すみっコぐらし とびだす絵本とひみつのコ, Mankyu, 2019)

Cute characters are ubiquitous in Japan and though many may associate them with merchandising aimed at small children, a more recent trend has expressly targeted dejected adults perhaps longing for an escape into a kinder, more innocent world. San-X has been at the forefront of this trend with its hugely popular merchandising lines often featuring characters who just want to take things easy and enjoy life such as the lazy bear Rilakkuma or the roly-poly Tarepanda. Featuring an entire cast of neurotic characters, Sumikkogurashi has been one of the studio’s most successful collections appearing on everything from stationery items to cookware and clothing. 

Sumikkogurashi: Good To Be In The Corner (映画 すみっコぐらし とびだす絵本とひみつのコ, Eiga Sumikkogurashi: Tobidasu Ehon to Himitsu no Ko) is the franchise’s first animated movie and at just over an hour long is aimed squarely not at the regular adult audience but at small children (or perhaps the small children of the same overly anxious adults), taking inspiration from various international fairytales as the guys go on an improbable adventure to help a lost little duckling trapped inside a book. For those not already familiar with the world of Sumikkogurashi, the picture book-style narrators (Yoshihiko Inohara & Manami Honjo) introduce each of the characters who never speak themselves but communicate with each other through onscreen text mimicking that which appears on their character goods later interpreted by the narrators. The central theme of the Sumikkogurashi franchise is that each of the characters is intensely neurotic and has retreated from the world in favour of the relative safety of the corner of the room where they find solidarity with other similarly troubled souls which include a polar bear afraid of the cold, a shy cat, the remnants of a tonkatsu cutlet too oily to finish and his shrimp tail buddy, a bunch of tapioca pearls left in a cup of bubble tea, and a green penguin who is confused about their identity wondering if they are actually a lost kappa. 

It’s to Penguin? that the main drama belongs as he bonds with the lonely duckling who has come loose in a book of fairytales and wants to find out where they belong. Sucked into a pop-up book, the Sumikkogurashi guys find themselves taking on the roles of the main characters with shy cat Neko cast as fierce yet tiny warrior Momotaro, Shirokuma as The Little Match Girl forced to face the cold, Tonkatsu and Ebifurai no Shippo in Little Red Riding Hood, secret dinosaur Tokage as The Little Mermaid, and Penguin? thrown into the world of the Arabian Nights. Together they pledge to help Hiyokko, the lost duckling, find where they belong and hopefully some friends along the way facing their own fears as they go.

The irony is that the guys have to leave the corner and go on an adventure where they do not exactly overcome their fears but perhaps learn that there’s not so much to be afraid of, Neko for instance making friends with the scary demon who chases them to offer some “onigiri” (a minor pun) in return for the gift of dumplings rather than fighting him as in the Momotaro folktale, even if they obviously need to return to the corner in the end. The message is that no one is really alone, even if they’re lonely in the corner lots of other people are too and you can find comfort in all being lonely together. The simple, water colour-inspired animation style is a perfect match for the series’ “healing” aesthetic with its gentle humour and random puns appealing both to small children drawn in by the cuteness of the characters and jaded adults looking for a little comfort who are presumably the targets of the more sophisticated gags. A simple bedtime story, Sumikkogurashi: Good to Be in the Corner is filled with wholesome warmth that belies its neurotic premise as the guys find solace in friendship and kindness while contending with an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile world.


Sumikkogurashi: Good To Be In The Corner streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Flowers (フラワーズ, Norihiro Koizumi, 2010)

flowersThe rate of social change in the second half of the twentieth century was extreme throughout much of the world, but given that Japan had only emerged from centuries of isolation a hundred years before it’s almost as if they were riding their own bullet train into the future. Norihiro Koizumi’s Flowers (フラワーズ) attempts to chart these momentous times through examining the lives of three generations of women, from 1936 to 2009, or through Showa to Heisei, as the choices and responsibilities open to each of them grow and change with new freedoms offered in the post-war world. Or, at least, up to a point.

In 1936, oldest sister Rin (Yu Aoi) is to be married off against her will to a man picked by her father and whom she has never actually met. Bold and wilful, Rin finds herself more than usually torn between her intense resentment at being forced into a one time only life changing event simply on her father’s say so, and the guilt of rejecting centuries of tradition in rejecting her father’s authority. Minutes before the ceremony Rin makes a break for it fully done up in her wedding dress and makeup.

Flashing forward to her funeral in 2009, we learn that Rin did marry (someone, at least) and had three daughters. It’s her granddaughters we’re interested in now – happy mother Kei (Ryoko Hirosue), cheerful even at a wake, and the depressed Kanna (Kyoka Suzuki) – an unmarried former concert pianist who’s recently discovered she’s pregnant and is unsure what to do. In order to understand them we have to flashback a little again – to 1969, 1964, and 1977 to find out what happened to Rin’s three daughters – Kaoru (Yuko Takeuchi), Midori (Rena Tanaka), and Sato (Yukie Nakama).

Koizumi makes the most of his shifts in time periods to experiment with technical effects recreating the look of classic films of the era. Hence, 1936 is a desaturated monotone filled with classic silent movie compositions, seemingly owing a large debt to Ozu, Shimizu, and Mizoguchi. The difference between 1964 and 1969 might be thought slight but partly down to the different genre elements in the two vignettes, the contrast is marked with 1964 taking on the classic romantic melodramas of the period, and 1969 embracing bright and colourful salaryman comedy – only this time it’s a salary woman embarking on the era of having it all (though perhaps, tragically, ten too years to early to make the most of it). 1977 brings us back down with bump of realism as Sato lives an ordinary suburban life as a housewife and mother. Imbuing each of his eras with the warmth of nostalgia backed up with rich period detail, Koizumi has indeed framed his passage of womanhood narrative with an impressive degree of grounding.

This has been a period of intense social change, entirely for the better even if there is still a long way to go. Though marriages of 1936 were referred to as semi-arranged, families could and did place intense pressure on their children to consent or refuse to accept their refusal to do so (perhaps as true for sons as daughters, though sons were unlikely to find themselves in such a difficult position when things went wrong). Thus the course of Rin’s life is decided by her rigid, austere father leaving her with no possibility of choice in a world entirely controlled by men. Her daughters have more freedom and opportunities, marrying for love and choosing careers and/or motherhood as they see fit.

Midori, the most headstrong of the three sisters takes a job at a publishing house where she is the only female employee. Receiving a marriage proposal leads her to question her choices once again, wondering if accepting means jumping off the career ladder altogether. Wanting to get ahead, Midori has been behaving like her male colleagues – dressing in less feminine clothes and in subdued colours, heading off the inevitable sexist comments with aggression and violence but, eventually emboldened, she she finds herself blossoming when embracing her femininity within the workplace.

The world has moved on – women cannot be pushed in the same way Rin was pushed even if social mores can still be used to cajole them into conformity. The one big recent social change is in Kanna’s decision to proceed as a single mother. Though the question is still raised, there is broad approval for the idea which is met with no obvious stigma and only love and support from her immediate family. However, some things apparently don’t change as even if not all roads lead to marriage they all point towards motherhood which is still presented as the only marker of success as a woman. In this respect the closing montage accompanied by the odd choice of Olivia Newton John’s Have You Even Felt Mellow feels ill judged as the sister who’s experienced the ultimate heartbreak bounces around recreating the opening of Georgy Girl (only more successfully) with a new haircut and indulging in an ice-cream as a sort of antidote to eternal widowhood.

Nevertheless, Flowers does present a warm and broadly inspirational ode to the healing power of family and unbreakable female resilience even in the midst of such extreme social change. Painted with a keen eye for period detail and a deeply nostalgic longing for comforts long since passed, Koizumi’s exploration of womanhood through the ages is quick to acknowledge the pain and sacrifice experienced by women of all generations but is, in the end, too ready to accept it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hold Up Down (ホールドアップダウン, SABU, 2005)

hold-up-downReteaming with popular boy band V6, SABU returns with another madcap caper in the form of surreal farce Hold Up Down (ホールドアップダウン). Holding up is, as usual, not on SABU’s roadmap as he proceeds at a necessarily brisk pace, weaving these disparate plot strands into their inevitable climax. Perhaps a little shallower than the director’s other similarly themed offerings, Hold Up Down mixes everything from reverse Father Christmasing gone wrong, to gun obsessed policemen, train obsessed policewomen, clumsy defrocked priests carrying the cross of frozen Jesus, and a Shining-esque hotel filled with creepy ghosts. Quite a lot to be going on with but if SABU has proved anything it’s that he’s very adept at juggling.

Christmas Eve – two guys hold up a bank whilst cunningly disguised as Santas, but emerging with the money they find their getaway car getting away from them on the back of a tow truck. Still dressed as Father Christmases, the guys head for the subway and decide to stash the cash in a coin locker only neither of them has any change. After robbing a busker at gunpoint for 800 yen, the duo get rid of the loot but the guy chases after them at which point they lose the key which the busker swallows after being hit by a speeding police car. Trying to cover up the crime the two policeman bundle him into the car but crash a short time later at which time the busker gets thrown in a lake and then retrieved by a defrocked priest under the misapprehension that he is Japanese Jesus!

Following SABU’s usual spiralling chase formula, events quickly escalate as one random incident eventually leads to another. Christmas is a time of romance in Japan, though encountering the love of your life during a bank robbery is less than ideal. After a love at first sight moment heralded by a musical cue, the thieves head back on the run with the girl in tow but the course of true love never did run smooth. If romance is one motivator – death is another. On this holiest of days, our defrocked priest is caught in a moment of despair, contemplating the ultimate religious taboo in taking his own life and ending the torment he feels in having failed God so badly. Therefore, when our scruffy hippy busker washes up right nearby he draws the obvious conclusion – Jesus has returned to save him! Attempting to make up for his numerous mistakes, the priest is determined to save and preserve his Lord, but, again, his clumsiness results in more catastrophes.

The situation resolves itself as each of the players winds up at the same abandoned hot springs resort which turns out to be not quite so closed down as everyone thought. Filled with ghostly charm, the gloomy haunted house atmosphere sends everyone over the edge as they thrash out their various issues as if possessed by madness. Culminating in a sequence of extreme slapstick in which everyone fights with everyone else and frozen Jesus plays an unexpectedly active part, Hold Up Down brings all of its surreal goings on to a suitably absurd conclusion in which it seems perfectly reasonable that those wishing to leave limbo land could take a 2.5hr bus trip back to the afterlife.

Pure farce and lacking the heavier themes of other SABU outings, Hold Up Down, can’t help but feel something of a lightweight exercise but that’s not to belittle the extreme intricacy of the plotting or elegance of its resolution. An innovativeIy integrated early fantasy sequence begins the voyage into the surreal which is completed in the strangely spiritual haunted house set piece as the disillusioned priest spends some time with congenial demons before attempting to make his peace with God only for it all to go wrong again. If there is a god here, it’s the Lord of Misrule but thankfully they prove a benevolent one as somehow everything seems to shake itself out with each of our troubled protagonists discovering some kind of inner calm as a result of their strange adventure, as improbable as it seems (in one way or another). Christmas is a time for ghost stories, after all, but you’ll rarely find one as joyful as Hold Up Down.


Scene from the end of the film: