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)

Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル, Toshimitsu Iizuka, 2017)

poetry angel posterLife is confusing. You think you know what you want, only to realise it wasn’t what you wanted at all. What you really wanted was the very thing you convinced yourself you didn’t want so that you could want something else. The characters at the centre of Toshimitsu Iizuka’s Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル) are all suffers of this particular delusion, lost and alone in a small town in rural Japan without hope or direction. That is, until they discover the strange sport of “poetry boxing”.

Our hero, Tsutomu (Amane Okayama), is a 21-year-old farm boy with dreams of becoming an author. His illusions are, however, shattered when he checks the board in the community centre and discovers he hasn’t even placed in a local history essay writing contest which appears to have been won by a child. In this delicate state, a pretty girl suddenly approaches him and begs for his help but then drags him into a seminar room where he is forced to listen to a lecture on “poetry boxing”. Almost everyone else leaves straight away but Tsutomu is intrigued – after all, semi-aggressive literary sport might be just the thing to get an aspiring author’s creative juices flowing.

Tsutomu’s problems are the same as many a young man’s in Japanese cinema – he resents having his future dictated to him by an accident of birth. His father owns a large orchard and is a well respected producer of salt pickled plums. As the only child, Tsutomu is expected to take over but he hates “boring” country life and the repetitive business of farming, his thinly veiled jealousy all too plain when an old friend returns from Tokyo on a visit home between university graduation and a new job in the capital. Tsutomu thinks of himself as special, as an artist, but no one seems to be recognising his genius.

This might partly be because his only “poem” is an alarming performance art piece in which he laments his tendency to destroy the things he loves with his “weed whacker”. The sport of poetry boxing has no physical requirements but it has no limits either. It’s more or less like performance poetry or a less directly confrontational kind of slam, but participants are encouraged to step into the boxing ring and express themselves in whichever way they see fit. Once both participants have concluded their “poems” a panel of judges votes on the winner. Like Tsutomu, the other members of the poetry boxing team are dreaming of other things or claiming to be something they’re not. Rappers who really work in cabaret bars, lonely girls who fear they’re plain and long to be “cute”, civil servants longing to kick back at inconsiderate citizens, and old men who really do just want to write poetry and appreciate the time they have left.

Yet through the endlessly wacky tasks set by Hayashi (Akihiro Kakuta), the leader of the group, each of the participants begins to gain a deeper understanding of who they are and what they really want. Not least among them An (Rena Takeda), a gloomy young girl who spends her life scowling at people and refusing to speak. She’d been into boxing for real and first met Tsutomu when she punched him in the face because his unexpectedly sexist friend from Tokyo was harassing her in the street. Poetry, however, begins to unlock even her deepest held desires which can finally be voiced from the ironically safe space of the poetry boxing ring.

There may be nothing particularly original about Iizuka’s delayed coming of age tale, but it has genuine warmth for its confused no hopers as they look for connection through formalised language and ritual play, discovering new depths to themselves as they do so. As it turns out mostly what you want was there all along, only you didn’t want to look. Annoyingly, other people may have figured it out before you but that can’t be helped and is, after all, only to be expected. Poetry is a doorway to the soul but it’s also one that might need a good kicking to get it open. Maybe the boxing ring is a better place to start than one might think.


Original trailer (no subtitles)