What A Wonderful Family! (Kazoku wa tsuraiyo)

Japan (2016) Dir. Yôji Yamada

Families. Admit it, most of us have one and they are either a blessing or a bane in our lives but we wouldn’t be the same without them. While here in the west we tend to strive towards making our own paths in life, in Asia, particularly Japan, the emphasis on the family unit is far more pronounced.

It is a shame how one decision from one person can bring an entire family to its knees. When retired tetchy patriarch Shuzo Hirata (Isao Hashizume) arrives home late on the birthday of his wife of 50 years Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), he says he’ll make it up to her with any present she wants as long as it is cheap. So Tomiko asks Shuzo for a divorce!

Not quite as dramatic as Den and Angie Watts from that classic 1986 Christmas episode of Eastenders, and certainly there is less venom in Tomiko’s request – in fact she is almost too polite about it. Shuzo ignores it, thinking it is a joke but Tomiko has the forms already written out and ready for Shuzo’s signature; apparently the whole thing costs just 450 yen so he won’t be out of pocket either.

Having essentially picked up the mantle of king of the quaint family drama from the master Yasujiro Ozu, Yôji Yamada – who paid tribute to Ozu with his remake/homage of Tokyo Story with 2013’s Tokyo Family – reunites the cast from that film to bring us this light and airy yarn revolving around a modern suburban family rocked by this surprise development.

The Hirata family consists of Shuzo, Tomiko, eldest son Konosuke (Masahiko Nishimura), his wife Fumie (Yui Natsukawa), their two sons Kenichi (Takanosuke Nakamura) and Nobusuke (Ayumu Maruyama), and youngest Hirata son Shouta (Satoshi Tsumabuki). Lone daughter Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima) moved out when she married Taizo Kanai (Shozo Hayashiya), but they always fight and Shigeko often runs home and speaks of divorce.

It is on this latest occasion of a spat between the Kanais that Fumie lets slip of the impending divorce to Shigeko after overhearing Shuzo talking, although neither he nor Tomiko have chosen to tell the family yet. Instead of asking Tomiko why she wants divorce, Shuzo goes to his favourite bar run by the attentive and amiable Kayo (Jun Fubuki), leading Taizo to suspect they are having an affair.

Meanwhile shy piano tutor Shouta proposes to his nurse girlfriend Noriko (Yu Aoi) and plans to move out of the family home, which he only remains at because of his role as buffer between the often rowing Shuzo and Konosuke, two alpha males trying to hold onto their marked territory.

Because this is a Yamada film the pacing is moderate and the mood superficially calm but without the threat of anything truly salacious or contentious likely to shatter this serene comedy of manners. With the possible exception of the French, only the Japanese could broach a subject like divorce and the reaction is one of borderline insouciance.

Shuzo is something of a stereotype – in fact this applies to most of the characters but Japan is an rare example of stereotypes being closer to reality – as the grouchy, know-it-all patriarch with the mindset of being impervious to the troubles that plague other people. His views are old fashioned, such as sniffing at Tomiko taking up a creative writing course when she should be at home while he hits the golf course and the bars, which he enforces onto poor Fumie as the current keeper of the household.

By rights we should dislike the old rogue but Yamada makes him such an entertaining character despite on the precipice of a great fall that we abandon our hope of indulging in some Schadenfreude and wonder how he will cope when he understands Tomiko is deadly serious. While Tomiko remains graceful and keeps a dignified silence, she does write a short story in which an ungrateful husband is killed by his wife!

The irony of the tale is that just as one marriage is ending, another is hoping to get started. Shuzo insists Shouta brings Noriko home to meet the family but on the day he does, Shouta is unaware that the family gathering is in fact to discuss the impending divorce. Tomiko finally gets to air her grievances which kicks off a chain of pent up revelations from the other married couples about their partners.

Billed as comedy there are no laugh out loud moments but a few gentle giggles here and here. The personalities of the cast all have an inherent cheekiness about them that they might have been lifted from a sitcom, while the big family meeting scene descends into something akin to a farce, incorporating some amusing physical slapstick. Joe Hisaishi’s musical score is playful and jaunty, adding a certain buoyancy to the mood.

Ultimately this is a film about communication and the importance of knowing and understanding each other’s feelings and respecting them. We humans have our foibles and annoying habits, and while compromise might not be a concept older mentalities apply to marriage, with the 21st century now well underway, some old dogs do need to learn some new tricks.

Yamada avoids being blatantly didactic with this tale and presents it in such a joyously breezy manner that people may not realise the lesson being subtly inculcated here. Some might think he is taking the Ozu reverence a bit far in using the same cast in practically the same roles and in most cases with the same names, but this familiarity works for Yamada and the audience in slipping comfortably into this world.

What A Wonderful Family! is a more energetic and modern take on the Ozu formula but still respectful to the themes and ideals behind them. A distinctly Japanese film with a message that resonates globally, this is a perfect way to spend 108 minutes on a lazy Sunday afternoon.


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