The Kansai region, which includes the cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe, is Japan’s comedy center. The biggest comedy talent agency, Yoshimoto Kogyo, is based in Osaka and its comics mostly deliver their quips in the Kansai dialect.
So why does Kansai, — especially Osaka — produce more funnymen (and women) than anywhere else in the country? As natives of Japan’s second city, I’ve been told, Osakans have a traditional disrespect for authority, as well as a traditional love of comedy — not traits often associated with their sober-sided samurai rulers in Edo (now Tokyo) or their stodgy bureaucratic descendants. American parallels would be Chicago and the outer boroughs of New York, both more prolific producers of comic talent than power centers such as Washington and Manhattan.
So it’s no surprise that an Osaka native, Seitaro Kobayashi, should make his directorial debut with a comedy, “Kazoku no Hiketsu (Family Secrets),” set in his home city. Or that he should have a gift for laughs — so much so that the Directors Guild of Japan awarded him their Newcomers Prize for this film.
What’s unusual is Kobayashi’s story and treatment. Unlike fellow Kansai directors Junji Sakamoto, Kazuyuki Izutsu and Takashi Miike, whose local heroes tend to be on society’s margins — from Izutsu’s ethnic Koreans to Sakamoto’s boxers and Miike’s punk brawlers — Kobayashi focuses on ordinary, salt of the earth Osakans. Also, unlike the many young directors who try to impress with visual and narrative gymnastics, stylistically Kobayashi is middle-of-the-road, with no surrealistic imagery and no bizarre plot twists.
Which may make his film sound like an unadventurous sit-com. Not so — “Kazoku no Hiketsu” views its characters from the inside, with affection, but without blinders. It may exaggerate here and there for comic effect, but it is also grounded in the sort of facts, personal and social, that only an insider would know. Its tone is not wildly frantic or blackly ironic, but rather warmly observational, with the laughs coming from characters with real personalities, not the more common ticks or quirks. It’s no wonder that older directors like Kobayashi: he’s carrying on the tradition of humanistic comedy, as exemplified by Yoji Yamada’s enduringly popular Tora-san series, that his contemporaries have largely abandoned.
His hero isn’t a middle-aged peddler like Tora-san, but Kenji Shimamura (Mashiro Hisano), a high-school boy whose parents have squabbled about Dad’s infidelities since he was a baby. Kenji thus regards the whole male-female thing, sex included, with an understandable wariness. When his girlfriend of six months, Noriko (Mitsuki Nanimura), rides him on a bike into a love hotel parking garage, he runs away.
He likes Noriko well enough, but he is convinced he has a sexual disease, though his only previous erotic flights have been solo. Humiliated, Noriko storms off — and Kenji starts looking for help in all the wrong places.
Meanwhile, his mother (Yoko Akino) suspects his father (Jakujaku Katsura) of cheating on her yet again, and pays Kenji ¥10,000 to investigate. Needing the cash for a consultation at a sexual-disease clinic, he spies on Dad, discovering him in the company of a perky younger woman, Yukari (Chisun).
No fool, Yukari soon unmasks Kenji, but is shocked when he tells her that her beefy, if barrel-o’-laughs, boyfriend has a teenage son and a wife who is also a business partner (they run a real-estate agency together). Kenji thinks this will be the end of her, but the next day she shows up at the agency to apply for a job. When Kenji returns home from school he finds Yukari and Mom chatting merrily away — when Dad comes through the door soon after, he makes a sharp U-turn.
Still to come is the encounter of Kenji and a pal with a dodgy Chinese medicine seller; Noriko’s revenge fling with Kenji’s taller, cooler classmate; and Mom’s Vesuvian explosion when she finally learns the truth about Yukari.
So far so farcical, but as the plot thickens and the relationships between the main characters clarify, the tone shifts toward the serious. Dad, we see, is not a bad sort, but his feckless philandering has made his wife and son lonely and distrustful. Kenji, wised-up but sadder than his years, cannot answer the one question that has been bothering him all his life — why do men and women have to be together, anyway?
As Kenji, the newcomer Hisano projects the right air of resentment and bewilderment, but the film belongs to its actresses, including Akino as fed-up but feisty Mom, Nanimura as pure-hearted, but sexually bold Noriko and Chisun as indomitable, if hard-to-figure, Yukari. Comic Katsura’s Dad is not really in Yukari’s league (or Mom’s either, for that matter), but his rough-hewn charm somehow carries him through.
The ending is satisfying, though Kenji doesn’t get the answer he was hoping for. He learns, however, that the women in his life have a strange strength he may not always understand, but has to respect. In other words, welcome to the real, grown-up world, my son.