J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

NYAFF ’16: What a Wonderful Family

He hasn’t quite reached the remarkable productivity of the late centenarian director Manoel de Oliveira, but octogenarian Yoji Yamada’s dependability is still pretty impressive. The Japanese filmmaker is still on a film per year schedule. He is clearly prolific, having helmed all but two of the ten thousand Tora-san films. Yamada even had the chutzpah to kind of-sort of remake Tokyo Story. Yamada continues to tip his hat towards Ozu’s masterpiece, but maintains a lightly comedic tone throughout What a Wonderful Family (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

If you were married to the gassy and slovenly Shuzo Hirata, you would probably want to divorce him too, so we can hardly blame the elegant Tomiko Hirata for finally saying enough is enough. Still, she might have better prepared him for the divorce papers she essentially blindsides him with. Old man Shuzo reacts by playing the victim, using his wife’s supposed abandonment to justify more boozing and grouchy grandpa behavior.

However, the rest of the household takes the potential divorce deathly seriously. Like old school shomin-gekis, the Hiratas are a large household—and possibly getting larger, but also maybe smaller. The eldest son Konosuke shares the house with his parents, his patient wife Fumie, their two bratty kids, and his younger brother Shota. Technically, Konosuke’s sister Shigeko Kanai moved out to live with her underwhelming husband Taizo, but it seems like they are always working out their marital problems in the Hiratas’ house. Of all days, Shota brings his fiancée Noriko Mamiya (note the name) to meet the family exactly when Fumie calls a meeting to discuss the proposed divorce. However, when things get chaotic, they will be happy to have the level-headed nurse there.

Wonderful acknowledges such great big family living arrangements are becoming increasingly uncommon in today’s Japan, but Yamada makes the Ozuian formula work in a contemporary context. He also brings back the cast of Tokyo Family, his Tokyo Story riff-reboot, like a repertory company, with Yu Aoi reprising the role of Mamiya. Stepping into Setsuko Hara’s shoes is a daunting proposition, but she is utterly charming and exquisitely sensitive as the modern day Noriko.

Isao Hashizume’s patriarch is a real handful, in a broadly comedic sort of way, but he shows a delicate touch in his big pay-off scene. Kazuko Yoshiyuki is a consistently warm, humanistic presence as Tomiko, while Satoshi Tsumabuki is surprisingly engaging as the somewhat socially awkward Shota. Technically, she is not family (except maybe to old Shuzo), but the classy Jun Fubuki really lights up the film as Kayo, the mature hostess of the old man’s favorite bar.

There is some shtickiness here and there, but when the Hiratas come together as a family, it really is touching. Yamada hits the right notes and keeps the vibe sweetly nostalgic, so when Gramps consoles himself with Tokyo Story, the film somehow manages to avoid unflattering comparisons. (Still, nothing truly compares to Ozu’s Noriko masterpieces). Recommended for general audiences who can appreciate its gentle old fashionedness, What a Wonderful Family screens tomorrow (6/26) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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