Backdrop Papa

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Toshio Lee
Running time: 98 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Oct. 8
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Boys want their fathers to be heroes. Men want to be heroes to their sons. These truisms sound old-fashioned in today’s unheroic Tokyo, where dads are commonly corporate warriors whose battles involve no blood-letting (unless one is counting ulcers, of course).

But the urge for a father to prove himself as a man among men to his son is still strong. Thus all those out-of-shape dads huffing and puffing around the track at junior’s school undokai (sports day). Hense all those indoorsmen schlepping on camping trips where they can demonstrate their manly skills at pitching tents, starting fires and crunching aluminium cans with their bare hands.

But boys, as Toshio Lee’s feature debut “Backdrop Papa” illustrates, aren’t easily fooled or pleased. For Kazuo (Ryunosuke Kamiki), who has ascended past dad-worshipping babyhood into the jaded upper grades of elementary school, his pro wrestler father (Tsuyoshi Ukaji) is nothing but an embarrassment. Aptly named Ushinosuke (which roughly translates as “Bull”), Dad plays the hero in the ring, but can usually count his audience on the fingers of his massive hands. Also, though movie-star handsome, he is long past his prime and his chintzy-looking championship belt is nothing but a joke.

None of this, however, quite explains Kazuo’s contempt for Ushinosuke and the other members of the New World Pro Wrestling Association who may be has-beens and never-weres touring the country in an old micro bus, but are mostly good-natured, salt-of-the-earth guys. (The one glaring exception is the excitable, motor-mouthed manager [Katsuhisa Namase], who is struggling like a drowning man to keep the association financially alive.)

Also, when Kazuo and Ushinosuke move into the Osaka flat of Ushinosuke’s father (Eiji Minakata), the neighborhood kids gape in awe at the burly movers from the NWPWA a plus for any new boy on the block. One, the short, spunky Tetsuo (Yutaka Tanaka), becomes Kazuo’s best friend. Meanwhile, Tetsuo’s mom, Terue (Kaho Minami), who runs a neighborhood yakitori joint, renews her childhood acquaintance with Ushinosuke and longs for it to become something more.

Kazuo, however, has his reasons for being less than admiring of Ushinosuke, several to do with his dead mother, who exists for him only on a video that he plays over and over. Though he tries not to show it, Ushinosuke knows those reasons all too well. But how can he become a hero in his son’s eyes again?

Based on a popular children’s book by Ramo Nakajima and set, like its source, in the 1980s, “Backdrop Papa” has a zero-to-hero arc that is almost surprising in its predictability. After seeing so many repetitions of the formula, in every sport from competitive ballroom dancing (“Shall We Dance?”) to baseball (“Mr. Rookie”), I was expecting a fresh plot wrinkle or two, but the script by Chong Wi Shing (“Tsuki wa Dotchi ni Deteiru,” “Ai o Kou Hito”) hits all the standard notes. Ushinosuke abandons heroism for face-painted villainy, in a last desperate stab for popularity. He starts to draw crowds until he feels he is ready for the big-time a televised do-or-die brawl with a black karate champ. Haven’t we seen this movie before?

An Osaka native and a director of hit TV dramas (“Gakko no Kaidan,” “Ashita ga Aru Sa”) making his feature debut, Toshio Lee applies broad strokes for easy laughs, but gets the finer touches right, from the Osaka atmospherics to Kazuo’s cold scorn for his father’s bumbling attempts at reconciliation.

Staying true to its source, “Backdrop Papa” is largely shot from the point of view of Kazuo, who looks, with his neatly pressed shorts and buttoned-to-the-collar shirt, like a little priss, but turns out to be a basically likable kid. (A question for the costume designer: Who is keeping his clothes immaculate a ghost?) Credit is due to Ryunosuke Kamiki, already a veteran at age 11, who nails his scenes, including the big emotional ones, with an unfussy professionalism.

As Ushinosuke, Ukaji verges on being a ham actor, inducing much teeth-gritting and jaw clenching, but he’s convincing in his fight scenes, not because his moves are so slick but because he can mimic pain and desperation so well. A former biker who once bossed a gang of 2,000 members, Ukaji knows whereof he speaks or rather bleeds. Without seeming to act at all, he shows us Uchinosuke’s fatherly heartache, even as he is getting his head handed to him in the ring.

Me? I never ran laps at the undokai, but I was a star in the bingo room.

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