Yoji Yamada has turned towards family films during the latest years, and this time presents a social comedy about a family of three generations living under the same roof.
The Hirata’s, seemingly, are a functional family, despite the fact that the grandparents, their eldest son, Konosuke with his wife, Fumie and their two children, and the younger son, Shota, all live under the same roof, along with their dog, Toto. The only family member away from the house is the daughter, Shigeko, who lives with her husband, Taizo, in an apartment of their own. The only one who seems to be problematic is the grandfather, Shuzo, a rude man who spends most of his time getting drunk at a local bar, where he occasionally flirts with the hostess, and nags to the rest of the family whenever he is home. However, when his wife, Tomiko asks for a divorce, her act shocks the family and at the same time, brings to the fore the issues among them. In that fashion, Fumie, who functions as the caretaker of the house, is somewhat frustrated with her husband, who becomes more and more like his father, as exemplified in a scene when both return home drunk. Shota stays in the house, despite his will, because he thinks he has to keep the balance between Shuzo and Konosuke, who, being so much alike, do not get along. When he proposes to his girlfriend, Noriko, however, he finally has to leave. Lastly, loud and generally bossy Shigeko, often fights terribly with Shozo, threatening to divorce him. All of the aforementioned issues come to surface in a family meeting where everyone is present.
Yamada directs a film in the distinct style of the contemporary social Japanese film, which includes slow pace, realism, little to none action, and great attention to the development of characters and to the various details. In that fashion, the film is much reminiscent of Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Still Walking,” although “What a Wonderful Family” is much more comedic. The main focus of the film may be on the concept of family in general, but the obvious protagonist of the film is Shuzo, as Yamada examines the concept of love and marriage in the elderly, and the effect they can have on the rest of the family members. Through them, he presents a message that love never actually fades with the years, but just transforms into something less exciting, but necessary for both parts, nevertheless. Furthermore, and along with the other couples in the family, he states that men may seem insensitive and even ignorant towards their wives, but in reality, they cannot live without them. Another point he makes, is that the patriarchal family of the past does not apply in the contemporary society, as in Tomoko’s marriage, she is the definite “boss,” and in Shota’s, they are both equal.
Probably the film’s biggest asset is its cast, with Isao Hashizume giving a wonderful performance as Shuzo, Shozo Hayashiza and Tomoko Nakajima being highly entertaining as the opposite couple of Taizo and Shigeko, and Satoshi Tsumabuki as Shota and beautiful as ever Yu Aoi forming a very fitting couple. The comic part is largely presented by veterans Takashi Sasano, Katsumi Kiba and Tsurube Sakatai, who are hilarious in their small parts, as is the case with Yoki Tokunaga, who plays a deliverer. The cast, which mostly consists of elderly actors, proves once more the prowess of Japanese actors of the third age, as much as the directors’ prowess in directing them.
Technically, all of the movie’s aspects are in par with its permeating realism and subtlety, and in that fashion, are completely functional. Lastly, Joe Hisaishi’s music harmonically accompanies the general aesthetics of the film with its subtle sounds.
“What a Wonderful Family” is a great sample of contemporary, Japanese, social cinema and a testament of how elderly actors can be implemented in a present-day film.
The film is part of the excellent Asian selection of Fantasia International Film Festival that will be on in Montreal until August 3.