Takumi Saitoh’s prowess in acting is an indisputable fact, with the 138 credits to his name being a distinct proof. Recently, however, the Japanese former model has been proving his talent in direction also, with “Blank 13” and Folklore episode “Tatami” being a testament to the fact. “Life in a Box”, the Japanese episode of Eric Khoo-helmed “Food Lore”, continues in the same path, although in a completely different style.
Food Lore is available on HBO Asia and HBO
The film takes place almost exclusively in a train headed to the country, which is stranded due to a fallen tree. Four passengers inhabit the wagon in focus. A book author whose latest effort has been turned down by a publishing house. A recent widower and his almost estranged teenage daughter. A retired wrestler whose business has bankrupted and is on the verge of despair. As we watch their life stories through flashbacks, we also learn of their connection to bento, the traditional Japanese food-in-a-box that also gives the film its title.
Takumi Saito directs a very sensitive film, where drama seems to permeate the story, almost from beginning to end. A rather intense sentimentalism surrounds the whole narrative, deriving from a combination of nostalgia, drama and the subtle piano music by Kaori Sawada. However, Saito proves his prowess and his command of the medium by not allowing the film to hit the reef of the melodrama, by letting the stories unfold naturally, and by inducing the narrative with a sense of hope that becomes more intense as time passes. At the same time, Saito exemplifies food and particularly bento as a source of inspiration, reconciliation, memory and hope, in another aspect that works quite well. The presence of the train conductor, who adds an element of subtle comedy and of the old woman who sells bento, also adds to this aspect, in two very well-placed additions.
In terms of aesthetics, the movie follows the rules of the Japanese indie, with the slow pace and the focus on realism and detail, without any kind of exaltation. The acting follows these same rules, particularly through the two protagonists, Ken Yasuda as the father and Yuko Ando as the writer, who present their mentality mostly through facial expressions and body stances, but still quite eloquently. The presence of Akihisa Mera, the actual “The Great Kabuki” functions as a kind of an Easter Egg, but also as a tribute to the legendary wrestler and performer.
A number of positive comments could be made for “Life in a Box” but the most important one is that Saito’s effort leaves the viewer with a smile on his face upon conclusion.