My Man (Watashi no otoko)
Japan (2014) Dir. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri
In this day and age it seems that just about every taboo has been broken in film yet some still have the power to engender concern and appal. My Man is a film which explores one such taboo but manages to humanise it as much as it still shocks.
Based on the novel of the same name by Kazuki Sakuraba, the story is a tricky tale concerning a ten-year-old girl Hana (Mochika Yamada), whose family is wiped out by a tsunami/earthquake in a small coastal town in Hokkaido. Whilst wandering aimlessly seeking help Hana is found by her uncle Jungo (Tadanobu Asano), who takes her in, eventually adopting her and raising her as his own daughter.
In the ensuing years Jungo enters into a relationship with Komachi (Aoba Kawai), granddaughter of town elder Oshio (Tatsuya Fuji) but it suffers from interference from a teenage Hana (Fumi Nikadio) who seems to have an unhealthy crush on Jungo despite regarding him as her father.
Vladimir Nabokov’s taboo busting novel Lolita has not only spawned many imitators but in Japan, a recognised fetish known as “Lolita-complex” which hasn’t travelled too well outside of its borders. Hardly any wonder a story like My Man might just raise a few eyebrows. For director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, who has recently been on a bit of a spree of making films which depict the emotional plight of people living outside of social norms, this is just a another day at the office.
The big question in this tale is whether a line has really been crossed since adoption is quite often a legal contract between unrelated people, so the morality of any kind of physical relationship between adopted family members slips into a grey area. However Sakuraba’s narrative darkens this grey area by having Hana grow up believing she and Jungo are direct blood relatives, forming a special bond between them nobody else can understand or break.
Whether this is down to Jungo being a predatory paedophile or merely being a lonely soul who finds himself caught up in a fantasy which sees him having his cake and easting it (insofar as wanting to be a father as well as having a lover) is left implicit. But as the adult it is easy to point the finger at Jungo for allowing to get this far regardless of no grooming or suggesting from him is ever shown.
Initially we are led to believe this is all in Hana’s fanciful teenage mind, having gone from a complete family unit to a single parent upbringing. Again, her infatuation is hinted at through oblique moments, such as Hana explaining with unsettling authority to Komachi what Jungo needs in his life – and it comes only from a genuine family bloodline, obviously excluding Komachi.
By the next time skip Komachi is out of the picture and Hana’s infatuation is barely concealed with her yearning for Jungo while he is away work at sea. In a conversation with Oshio, Hana talks more like a frustrated wife than a teenage daughter which sets alarm bells ringing for the old man, especially knowing Jungo for as long as he has.
To address the “do they, don’t they?” elephant in the room means heading into spoiler territory which I am usually loathe to do. Kumakiri boldly manipulates our fears for the first hour plus through Hana’s verbal teases and Jungo’s brooding yet expressionless loitering with intent then hits us right between the eyes with a symbolic sledgehammer of a scene, creating a powerful fulcrum for the story to swing into another direction for the second half.
The pace quickens after the meandering first 90 minutes, leaving character and story development at something of a premium. Hana is now a young woman and working as a corporation receptionist while Jungo wastes his days away drinking in between a taxi driving job. Hana is courted by a co-worker Ozaki (Kengo Kora) and for the first time she begins to see the world, and her relationship with Jungo, from a fresh perspective, but can she or Jungo let go of each other?
Like many filmmakers Kumakiri doesn’t offer his own judgement to a story like this, preferring to confront the issue head on, lay out the scenarios then leave the audience to draw their own conclusions. The characters are very well drawn and the number of key players is kept to a manageable number to avoid overcomplicating things with too many voices spoiling the narrative. For a provocative and controversial subject Kumakiri’s adapt this story with candour, raw emotion and voyeuristic detachment.
For his principal leads Kumakiri chose wisely. Tadanobu Asano is one of Japan’s biggest acting names as well as on the international front (he was in the Thor movies) and while his CV is a mixture of indie and commercial films some may question his accepting this role. However Japan is a lot more open to actors taking chances and Asano rewards us all by bringing the necessary ambiguity and edge to the part of Jungo as only he can.
She may have only five years acting under her belt but this film belongs to Fumi Nikaido. With her star still in ascension this is her most accomplished performance to date, having to navigate Hana from a gawky pubescent teen through to womanhood and maturity. Nikaido achieves this with great nuance and reflection of the subtle quirks of growing up, while blessed with a babyface that allows the aging process to roll on smoothly and convincingly.
This tour de force performance is the film’s strongest asset and the sole basis for a recommendation. While superbly shot and strong on atmospherics and subtleties the 129 minute run time is not entirely justified. A suitably condensed script and less indulgence in the early going would ensure My Man a place higher up the totem of powerfully challenging films of its time, but as it stands, it still capable of leaving a lasting impression.