In these days of ubiquitous movie prerelease news and hype, it’s harder to remain a blank sheet going into the theater — unless you totally block out everything but the title.
Still, walking into a screening of Yuki Tanada’s family drama “Shijukunichi no Recipe (Mourning Recipe),” I thought I might be in for a film about a woman finding the key to her messed-up life in the kitchen. That is, a feel-good foodie movie, of which the Japanese film industry has baked dozens.
But Tanada, who made her feature debut in 2004 with the offbeat sex comedy “Tsuki to Cherry (Electric Button),” never stays completely on genre rails, while breaking seemingly iron-clad narrative rules in the name of emotional honesty. Also, instead of playing God with her characters, meting out rewards for the good and punishments for the bad, she tends to see them and their various sins in a more forgiving light.
So it is with Ryohei (Renji Ishibashi), an elderly man living alone in the countryside and feeling depressed following the sudden death of his beloved wife Otomi. He keeps returning obsessively to his last words to her — an angry complaint about her homemade croquette sandwiches.
So it is also with his daughter Yuriko (Hiromi Nagasaku), who has been unsuccessfully undergoing fertility treatments while her husband Hiroyuki (Taizo Harada) has been busy making his younger lover pregnant — a fact of which Yuriko has recently become aware. Before leaving to visit her father during the 49-day mourning period, Yuriko places a divorce application on the kitchen table. And yet she is torn, especially since she is abandoning Hiroyuki’s bedridden mother, for whom she has been dutifully caring despite her hubby’s infidelity.
This is the pattern of many a local family drama, in which wives are pulled one way by their unruly emotions, another way by the clarion call of duty, variously defined.
Only “Mourning Recipe” is not like those dramas; not quite. First, there is Imoto, aka “Imo” (Fumi Nikaido), a bubbly teenaged girl who shows up unannounced at Ryohei’s house and immediately installs herself as his caretaker. Then there is Harumi, aka “Haru” (Masaki Okada), a friendly Brillo-haired Japanese-Brazilian who pitches in to prepare the long-neglected house for the 49th-day party Otomi requested in lieu of the traditional memorial gathering.
This pair, it turns out, were close to Otomi, who was a volunteer at the rehab center where Imo was a resident. Also, unbeknown to Ryohei and Yuriko (but not to Imo), Otomi prepared a book full of recipes and homespun wisdom to aid preparations for her big party and serve her loved ones as a guide to a happy life.
If this sounds like a hanky-wringing weeper, with a third-act uplift, “Mourning Recipe” both is and isn’t. Despite having the materials for a commercial melodrama, Tanada and scriptwriter Hisako Kurosawa are of two minds about them (similar to the divided emotions of their heroine, Yuriko).
They use the book as a springboard for not only heartwarming, mouthwatering scenes of characters enjoying scrumptious food, but also pungent life lessons, as when Ryohei finally bites into a croquette sandwich of the type he had so harshly criticized — and bitterly tastes his own guilt.
More than food, however, the film’s focus is on the meaning of family, and how it can expand beyond blood ties. Otomi, we learn, was not Yuriko’s birth mother — a fact that, as a girl, she found difficult to accept. And yet Otomi unselfishly reached out to not only Yuriko, but total strangers like Imo and Haru.
Given that Otomi’s generous spirit and hard-earned wisdom are established early on, through flashbacks to her younger self and testimonies from those who knew her, the film keeps the dramatic pot bubbling by adding complications, such as Yuriko’s agonizing about her inability to produce an heir — that traditional trigger for marital discord here. It also gives us a villain of sorts in Ryohei’s sharp-tongued sister (Keiko Awaji), who acerbically criticizes everything from Yuriko’s separation from her husband to the unorthodox party arrangements.
Tanada’s treatment, however, refreshingly departs from formula, if not always in ways we might expect in a drama about women (Otomi, Yuriko, Imo) confronting prevailing social attitudes about their status and actions. That is, the film follows a moral logic of its own in which there are finally no bad guys, but instead just flawed human beings who need others to live and thrive.
But I couldn’t help wishing that the film’s recipe for its sinners, beginning with the wandering husband and the belittling aunt, had been something stronger than a broth of Buddhist tolerance. A quick Biblical fry in the fiery lake would, I think, have left a nice aftertaste.
For a chance to win one of five “Shijukunichi no Recipe” tenugui (cotton towels), visit jtimes.jp/film
Fun fact: The film’s theme song, “Aloha ‘Oe,” was written by Hawaii’s last queen, Lili’uokalani (1838-1917), to commemorate a parting embrace by James Harbottle Boyd, a loyal military official.