The Japanese women directors who have been gaining attention in the past two decades, beginning with frequent Cannes invitee Naomi Kawase, tend to be serious types, understandably. Their struggle for respect and recognition in a male-dominated industry is difficult enough — and goofy comedies are usually not going to make it easier.
Yuki Tanada is one such director. “I’m always serious about my work,” she tells me in a recent interview about her new film “My Dad and Mr. Ito” (“Otosan to Ito-san”).
And yet the first feature of this multi-talented writer, director and actress, 2004’s “Moon and Cherry” (“Tsuki to Cheri”), was a lubricious comedy about the members of a college porn-writing club. Also, most of her subsequent films have their laugh-out-loud moments, including the two I programmed for the Udine Far East Film Festival — “Round Trip Heart” (“Romance,” 2015) and “One Million Yen Girl” (“Hyakuman-en to Nigamushi Onna,” 2008). Like it or not, Tanada has a comic gift that sets her apart from many of her filmmaking contemporaries, male or female.
Based on a novel by Hinako Nakazawa, “My Dad and Mr. Ito” is also in this line: A gloomy 34-year-old part-time bookstore clerk Aya (Juri Ueno) is living with an easy-going 54-year-old man, the titular Ito (Lily Franky), when her cranky 74-year-old father (Tatsuya Fuji) suddenly shows up at their apartment and announces he is going to move in. This is a set up for comedy — and Tanada takes immediate advantage of it. As dad bluntly grills his daughter and Ito about their lives, the former steams and the latter blandly grins.
Instead of turning into a gag fest, however, the film unfolds as a penetrating, affectionate examination of not only the fraught relationship of its central trio, but the various problems they face — from aging alone to living on the economic margins — which reflect larger social currents.
Tanada also had a personal reason for wanting to make the film.
“My parents are getting older — they’re in their 70s. They can’t move around as well as they did when they were younger, and I have to figure out how to face this reality,” she explains. “My generation are the children of the baby boomers, so our parents make up a large part of the population. And now we children of that generation are facing our parents’ deaths. We can’t run away from that.”
Nakazawa’s novel, she continues, doesn’t dwell on the darker side of this issue: “It doesn’t portray this serious social problem heavily and gloomily.” she says. “It has a light touch, and that’s its charm.”
Even so, the novel and film’s main character, Aya, is hardly free of guilt.
“She says that if her father dies she wouldn’t be able to cry,” Tanada says. “Their relationship isn’t so terrible, but it’s not so close either, so Aya feels she is a heartless daughter. ‘I probably would cry more if my cat died,’ she says.”
This attitude is not limited to Aya, the director adds: “The theme of many ﬁlms today is ‘how kids loathe their parents.’ “
“They feel their childhood has been damaged because of them,” she continues. “Parents may have meant well, but they were always telling their kids what to do and what not to do, so many people grew up disliking them.”
The character of Aya herself, meanwhile represents a problem of another sort: The large cohort of Japanese who, into their 30s and beyond, have yet to find steady, full-time employment, let alone start a family or otherwise join the traditional adult world.
“I think her generation — she is 34 — is experiencing what is called an ‘extreme employment Ice Age’ (shūshoku chō-hyōgaki)” says Tanada. “They had a very hard time getting employed in the first place.”
Knowing what he does about Aya and Ito’s straitened circumstances (Ito is employed as a school cafeteria worker, hardly a high-paying occupation), why does Dad one-sidedly decide to stay with them? Sheer cussedness is one possible explanation, but Tanada has another: “He used to live with his grandfather, grandmother and other family members as a child, but now that he’s become their (his grandparents’) age there aren’t so many family members to live with,” she says. “That is a big difference.”
One of those members is Aya’s wishy-washy big brother, whose whiny wife demanded Dad’s exit, precipitating his flight to Aya.
Dad, it appears, would rather sleep on the streets than return to his son, but finally realizes that Aya’s place offers no permanent refuge either. He comes up with his own surprising solution to the housing problem, one that hinges on the kindly, if mysterious, Mr. Ito.
Not to give away anything, but the charged family conference that results plays out with Tanada’s by-now-familiar combination of pointed observation and wry humor, with a twist the film has been building up to from the beginning.
Rather than remake the story in her own directorial image, Tanada says she “tried to stay faithful to the novel.” But, she adds, “I (also) wanted to express the story in a way only a movie can. With writing you can reach the reader by going into detail, but with a movie you can’t simply voice-over everything with narrative, so emotions have to be expressed through the actors’ performances. In that sense it’s hard to be faithful.”
She gives an example: In a shot taken from behind Dad, who is sitting alone on a park bench, his slumped posture says more about his loneliness that his words ever could.
“Tatsuya Fuji’s back makes him so expressive in portraying the father,” Tanada explains. “The book describes Aya’s feelings as she looks at her father’s back, but in the movie I tried to do it more subtly.”
And, I should add, powerfully — or is that my own back I’m seeing, in the not so distant future?
“My Dad and Mr. Ito” (“Otosan to Ito-san” opens nationwide on Oct. 8. For more information, visit father-mrito-movie.com.