Her Love Boils Bathwater (Yu wo wakasuhodo no atsui ai)

Japan (2016) Dir. Ryota Nakano

The title of Japan’s official entry for the 2018 Best Foreign Language Oscars may sound delightfully whimsical and certainly not out of place as a song on Love’s classic Forever Changes album, but the subject matter of this film doesn’t equate itself to the same curious quirkiness it implies.

Futaba Sachino (Rie Miyazawa) is a hardworking single mum to teenage daughter Azumi (Hana Sugisaki) who is being bullied at school. One day, Futaba collapses at work and is diagnosed with stage four terminal cancer which she initially keeps from Azumi. This prompts Futaba to compile a bucket list, beginning with hiring someone to track down her estranged husband Kazuhiro (Joe Odagiri).

This proves to be easy when Kazuhiro is living in the next town so Futaba pays him a visit to reveal her illness to him and return home to look after Azumi – except Kazuhiro has been lumbered with a nine year-old daughter Ayuko (Aoi Ito) he never knew he had. The solution is simple – Futaba invites them both to move in with her and Azumi and help with re-opening the old bath house they used to run.

Writer-director Ryota Nakano cleverly keeps the title from appearing onscreen right up until the closing moments when its significance becomes clear – or perhaps clearer for those astute enough to read between the lines. And Nakano is not being flippant or too smart for his own good in doing this, instead it serves as a fitting tribute to a brave woman with a life time of burdens on her shoulders.

Usually a story of this nature invites us into a scenario of self-pitying sufferers (not that they don’t have that right) in overly melodramatic sentimental set-ups designed to tug mercilessly at our heartstrings. This film shares such traits of course but it remembers to also be sincere and add substance to the tear jerking, as well as add a few twists to the plot to put facets of the impending departure into perspective.

The bucket list aspect avoids the usual trap of giving our fated protagonist a superficial last hurrah so no swimming with dolphins or trips to Disneyland here – Futaba is a human being with many doors ajar that need closing. In what is revealed to be typically selfless for her, Futaba’s immediate thoughts are less about her own future but that of others around her, namely Azumi.

In fact, the majority of Futaba’s final goals concern her daughter – namely to see her be strong and stand up for herself, to reconnect with her father and find a nice prospective partner for her. The first is achieved after the bullying at school reaches an embarrassing apex which Azumi tackles in a brilliantly bold yet distinctly Japanese way, which both compromises her dignity and restores it at the same time.

Kazuhiro is a rather deadbeat husband and father, willing to do his bit as long as effort isn’t required. He left Futaba and Azumi a year earlier for another woman but that fizzled out before Ayuko was dumped on him by her deserting mother, who promised to return on Ayuko’s birthday. To little surprise, Ayuko’s mother is a no show on the big day, resulting in another startlingly mature display from the youngster in yielding to her fate and embracing her future.

All the while Futaba carries on with her campaign to get the bath house running again with all hands on deck, doing so with a smile on her face and maintaining a positive outlook in the face of adversity. What does eat away at Futaba the most are the secrets she has been carrying with her for years, and a road trip with Azumi and Ayuko is the first step in rectifying this.

Just when you think the plot is all clichés and convention Nakano pulls another twist out of his trick bag that should complicate matters further but somehow gets woven into the fabric of this unusual saga without appearing ludicrous and incongruent in the slightest. Making the farfetched seem natural is a rare skill and Nakano proves himself very adept at this and his excellent cast more than play their parts in hooking us in wholesale to following every step of this touching journey.  

Futaba’s sangfroid determination and fortitude is the act of someone galvanised into clearing her conscience and right some wrongs much sooner than she imagined, yet she is doing this for everyone else as much as she is for herself. Her now extended family and the few new friends she picks up along the way have every right to be angry but they can see the genuine motive behind it all and the nest of love Futaba is trying to establish for them.

Tears will be shed and throats will have lumps in them by the end but not because we have been skilfully manipulated by the lachrymose storytelling which unravels more like a mystery in places – this is a film carried by the superb performances that compliment the sympathetic and empathetic writing. No sweeping melancholic orchestral scores to lead the moment, the sole musical score is limited to a few occasional plaintive piano notes.

In a career best performance, Rie Miyazawa plays Futaba as a beacon of hope not an elegiac totem, a strong woman made stronger by an illness she bares with dignity and grace. Joe Odagiri is frustrating as the hapless Kazuhiro but it is the two youngsters who shine the most. Aoi Ito, aged 11 when filming, is given some remarkably heavy scenes as Ayuko which she pulls off with aplomb, as does then 19 year-old Hana Sugisaki as Azumi, impressing in one gut wrenching moment after another.

A film about terminal cancer shouldn’t be philosophically uplifting but Her Love Boils Bathwater somehow manages to be just that whilst delivering a touching and poignant disquisition on life, death and responsibility. I hope the Academy feels the same way come next March.