Movies about quirky, dysfunctional families are a thriving subgenre in Hollywood, “Little Miss Sunshine” being the most successful recent example. The Japanese make these films as well, but they tend to be more surreal — or rather manga-esque, as seen in Katsuhito Ishii’s “Cha no Aji (Taste of Tea),” Kaze Shindo’s “Korogare! Tamako (The Princess in an Iron Helmet)” and Masanori To-minaga’s “The Pavilion Sansho Uo (Pavilion Salamandre).”
Naoki Nagao’s “Argentine Baba (Argentine Hag)” is in this line as well, though its source material is not a manga but an eponymous novel by Banana Yoshimoto. Published with English and Japanese text on facing pages and illustrated by Yoshitomo Nara, the novel is squarely targeted at Yoshimoto’s huge, mostly female fan base.
It is also reminiscent of her 1987 novel “Kitchen,” which was filmed by Yoshi-mitsu Morita in 1989. In both films the heroine is a young woman left alone after a death — of a beloved grandmother in “Kitchen,” of a mother in “Argentine Baba.” And in both she finds spiritual refuge in the kitchen — cooking in the earlier book, baking bread in the latter, as well as support from an elder, wise figure belonging to a socially marginalized group — a transsexual in “Kitchen,” an eccentric cat lady in “Argentine Baba.”
But whereas Morita’s film aimed for a surface realism and felt forced and twee, Nagao creates a slightly skewed world that is to ordinary reality what Nara’s drawings are to real-life adolescent girls — a gently fantasized expression of their fears, dreams, desires and, yes, rage. Just as Nara’s “cute” kids glare at the viewer with laser eyes, Nagao’s “nice” heroine seethes and explodes.
Nagao has shot the occasional feature in a long career, beginning with the visually brilliant, deeply silly “Tokyo no Kyujitsu (Tokyo Holiday)” (1991), but he is also an in-demand CM director — and in “Argentine Baba” it shows. The film has a cozy, charming, out-of-this-world look, from its desaturated colors, reminiscent of old postcards, to the title character’s picturesque pile of a house (props to cinematographer Kosuke Matsushima and art director Noriyoshi Ikeya). Its story, though, feels focus-group tested, to better position it with the mass audience that likes its values confirmed and its quirky movies domesticated.
The heroine is Mitsuko (Maki Horikita), a high-school girl in a rural town, whose mother dies in the first reel and whose stone-cutter father, Satoru (Koji Yakusho), disappears soon after, not even staying for the funeral, let alone to make the headstone. Mitsuko is taken in by her jittery aunt Sanae (Aiko Morishita), who runs a “snack” (bar) in town — and is infuriated by her brother-in-law’s irresponsibility.
Mitsuko finds a part-time job at a massage clinic (not a sleazy “parlor”), where she develops a crush on a tall, shy novice masseur (Naoki Tanaka). She also finds support, of an affectionately teasing variety, from her cheeky cousin Shinichi (Yukichi Kobayashi). At home she kneads bread dough — and slams it on the counter — to work out her anger at her father’s absence, but nothing can fill the gap he has left.
Then Satoru is found — no need to say how — living with one Yuri (Kyoka Suzuki), a Japanese-Argentine woman with a flamboyant manner, a mop of gray hair and who knows how many cats. Once a teacher of Spanish and the tango, she lives in a decaying three-story Western-style house in the middle of a grassy field — and has become a town byword for weirdness.
Together with Shinichi, Mitsuko invades the premises and discovers Yuri to be, not the mad crone of her imagination, but a sane, welcoming sort, who may smell funny, but makes a delicious cup of mate tea (Argentina’s national drink). And the pots of honey she gives Mitsuko as gifts — taken from her own hives — exert a strange, sensual power over the snack’s middle-aged regulars, who are soon making goo-goo eyes at their wives.
But Mitsuko still resents the hold Yuri exerts over her dad, just as she can’t understand his need to escape his duties as a father, husband — and mourner. Her aunt more than agrees — and has the bright idea of hauling a grave stone to Yuri’s house to shame Satoru into doing the right thing.
But instead of carving his wife’s name on the stone, all he wants to do is learn the tango and build a colorful Mandela from tiles and bricks on Yuri’s rooftop. When will he will come to his senses?
The first indication that we are in for feel-good fantasy, not serious drama, is the casting of Kyoka Suzuki as the title hag. Despite the gray wig, heavy makeup and frumpy clothes, Suzuki is still Suzuki — not only a great actress, but a radiant beauty whose face on a magazine cover can steam up a subway car at 10 paces. As Shinichi sagely remarks, his uncle is living in “a man’s paradise.”
Koji Yakusho plays Satoru with a shambling charm, but he can’t make up for the film’s lack of all but the sketchiest of back story for his relationship with the two most important women in his life.
Was he really so broken up by his wife’s death that he couldn’t show up for the funeral? How did he get together with Yuri anyway? We get answers of a sort, but they put the best possible gloss on his motives, like a just-so storybook. The possibility that he may have found the exotic Yuri hotter than his nice but conventional wife is indirectly suggested, but finally dismissed. Which makes box-office sense — Argentines, hot or otherwise, aren’t the audience for this movie, are they?