Bread Of Happiness (Shiawase no pan)

Japan (2012) Dir. Yukiko Mishima

Rie Mizushima (Tomoyo Harada) and her husband Nao (Yo Oizumi) heave relocated from Tokyo to a small rural locale of Lake Toya in Hokkaido to run a small restaurant-cum-guest house. Sang bakes the bread while Rei handles the rest of the food and drinks, creating meals that enchant and fulfil not just their guests but the locals too. Through these earnestly prepared homemade meals the young couple ensure that, whatever the season, whoever leaves their restaurant does so with nothing but feelings of happiness.

A film like this full of idealism and whimsy could only be made in Japan. We Brits couldn’t make it as we’re too cynical; Hollywood would make it too sappy or too OTT; the French would turn it into a surreal, dialogue heavy social commentary. So, the country that gave us Godzilla, Seven Samurai and animated tentacle porn continues to confound us by delivering another of their touching and humane films celebrating the simple things in life and the importance of caring for one another.

The restaurant name is Café Mani, after the titular hero in a book Rei loved as a child Mani and the Moon, sending her on a life long search for her own Mani, that ray of happiness and kindness. While Nao may fill the gap Rei is still missing something, which is revealed right at the very end of the film. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, café Mani has its share of regular local visitors, an eclectic and esoteric bunch who enjoy the food and view – cheerful Abe (Morio Agata) with his mysterious trunk, the postman (Riki Honda) who is in love with Rei and eccentric glass making artist Yoko (Kimiko Yo) as well as the ever expanding Hirokawa family, who provide the village with their fruit and veg. While no more than comic relief, they re-affirm the idea of local community coming together, an important aspect and tenet of Japanese life.

Laid out in an episodic format to match each of the four seasons, we open in the summer with the first beneficiary of the Mizushimas’ culinary problem solving being spoiled Tokyo-ite Kaori Saito (Kanna Mori). Having told her work colleagues she was sunning it up in Okinawa Kaori instead opts for the cheaper alternative of Lake Toya. After trying to drink away her issues Kaori finds herself connecting with and inspiring stuck in the rut the local railway worker Tokio Yamashita (Yuta Hiraoka). Next as autumn arrives, a young schoolgirl Miku (Yuki Yagi) laments missing her mother and the pumpkin soup she used to make, while dealing with a supposedly unsympathetic father (Ken Mitsuishi). Winter brings elderly couple Aya (Misako Watanabe) and Fumio Sakamoto (Katsuo Nakamura) to Lake Toya as well as a heavy blizzard, forcing the senior citizens to stay longer than intended at Café Mani. Aya is clearly ill and her desire to see the moon in Hokkaido seems to be a final wish.

The food provided by the Mizushimas may be the tastiest the patrons have ever tasted but it is not the miracle healer the plot may suggest, rather it acts as a catalyst, icebreaker or mnemonic to lead the troubled diner towards a resolve of their issues or at least relieve them of their blues. Buoyed by the Japanese tenet of putting ones heart and love into a meal we are spared the clichéd “awesome tasting food discovered, big business buys up the cooks, money is made, egos swell and partners fall out” story that Tinsel Town would produce. The simplicity of this tale is underpinned by the pathos of what Rei is missing in life – her cheery smile giving way to a pained longing when she is alone which only husband Nao seems to understand. Selflessly, the couple revel in whatever happiness they can bring to their customers, be they the regulars or the passing visitors.

Occasionally the film veers towards the sentimental, most notably in the second two arcs with young Miku’s parental problems and Aya Sakamoto’s ailing health issues. Unquestionably designed to tug on the heart strings there is still a wistful aura present in these scenes that stops them from drowning in sea of mawkish emotional outpouring. The issues the patrons all face are grounded in reality and are concluded as such, free of contrivance or any forced feel good endings, adhering to the low key nature of the film and the delightfully bucolic surroundings of Lake Toya. Arguably as much as a cast member as the actors, this serene setting presents itself as an idyllic sanctuary from modern life and a beautiful gift for the cinematographers who make great use of the lush scenery.

The pace is kept deliberate, sometimes laconic, while maintaining its earthy charm throughout, although at nearly two hours in length it starts to wane a little by the time the third act arrives. As a character driven film this stands true to the ensemble cast ethos and no one performance stands out, instead everyone plays an integral part in the film’s success. The characters may possess disparate personalities but the performances ensure they remain believable, even the quirky Yoko with her apparent super hearing.

Neither melodramatic or laugh out loud funny, Bread Of Happiness is a superb blend of easy going family fun and emotional drama that eases the viewer into a comfortable place while reminding us all that there is still some good in the world.