‘Yoi Ga Sametara Uchi Ni Kaero (Wandering Home)’

Home is where the bottle is

by Mark Schilling

Yoichi Higashi has accumulated a long list of honors in a four-decade career, including a Silver Bear at the 1996 Berlin Film Festival for his childhood drama “E no Naka no Boku no Mura (Village of Dreams).” But compared with certain other Japanese directors of his generation, his overseas profile is not high.

For one thing, Higashi has not been prolific, directing only 20 films, including his latest, “Yoi ga Sametara Uchi ni Kaero (Wandering Home),” a fictionalized biopic of an alcoholic photographer.

Another is that he is hard to categorize. “Village of Dreams” was in the international art-house tradition of using childhood to examine both basic human emotions and larger themes, such as discrimination against the burakumin (outcasts) in early postwar Japan. But what to make of 2003’s “Watashi no Guranpa (My Grandpa, 2003,” whose elderly ex-con hero (Bunta Sugawara) kicks young gangster ass? An entertaining film — but not arty in the least.

“Wandering Home” is not the usual art film about alcoholism that treats slow suicide by booze as high tragedy. Instead, it takes a more down-to-earth, low-drama view of the drinking life, with surreal comic touches. It also delivers real laughs, chills and tears. Here, it says, is the plain, strange truth about one drunk’s life — and it makes you believe.

Yoi Ga Sametara Uchi Ni Kaero (Wandering Home)
Director Yoichi Higashi
Run Time 118 minutes
Language Japanese

Based on an autobiographical novel by photographer-writer Yutaka Kamoshida, who died of kidney cancer in 2007 at age 42, the film follows the downward progress of Yasuyuki Tsukahara (Tadanobu Asano), who once had a brilliant career as a war-zone photographer. As the story begins, however, he is drinking himself to oblivion. Returning home, he vomits blood and passes out in the toilet. His mother (Yoshiko Kayama), knowing the drill all too well by now, calls an ambulance.

Rushing to the scene is Yuki Sonoda (Hiromi Nagasaku), a cartoonist who was once married to Yasuyuki but, unable to stand his drunken rages (of which he’d have no memory the day after), divorced him. She is still concerned for his welfare, however, and consults his doctor, a pleasant chap who tells her the blunt truth: “Alcoholism,” he says, “is the one disease that almost no one sympathizes with. “In some cases, that also goes for doctors,” he adds.

Despite a pledge to sober up, Yasuyuki soon falls off the wagon: A nibble on salty pickles leads to a binge — and a stay in a hospital psychiatric ward. Here is where “Wandering Home” departs from almost every other film about alcoholics: Instead of raging against being deprived of his freedom, Yasuyuki rather enjoys the quiet and the routine, though the blandness of the food annoys him. (One running joke is his longing for a bowl of curry rice, which his keepers smilingly deny him out of concern for his still-ailing insides.)

He is transferred to an all-male alcoholic ward, where once again he seems to make a smooth adjustment — though he also comes to realize, with the help of a tart-tongued female psychiatrist (Seiko Takada), that stopping the booze is only the beginning of his cure. He has to own up to words and deeds, remembered or no, as well as heal his ravaged body — though it may be too late.

Asano also played an alcoholic, based on the writer Osamu Dazai, in “Viyon no Tsuma (Villon’s Wife)” (2009), though the writer had an air of danger about him, in contrast to Yasuyuki’s air of helplessness. His Yasuyuki knows, contemplating yet another popped beer can, that he is being an idiot but, with a sheepish grin, he upends the can anyway.

Harmless and pathetic? Not really, since in other scenes, including an odd one in which Yasuyuki literally turns into a charcoal-blackened demon, we see the psychic bubbling and frothing beneath the seemingly placid surface.

A result of the horrors he witnessed in his wartime work? Wisely, the film supplies no simplistic answers — no flashback to a dead child or raped girl. Instead it focuses on the hero’s present — and his dawning realization that his remaining days are few.

Playing his ex-wife, a character based on real-life cartoonist Rieko Saibara, Nagasaku balances weariness and disgust with lingering affection and concern, all shown with perfect clarity in her mobile features. She may excel at being funny (see her nutty housewife in 2007’s “Funuke Domo, Kanashimi no Ai o Misero (Funuke — Show Some Love, You Losers!),” but in “Wandering Home” she shows she can also act.

“Wandering Home” shows us not just the pathos of Yasuyuki’s fate, but also what can only be called the beauty of his acceptance. After wasting years in a drunken stupor, by the end he wakes up and sees what matters and what he will miss. We can only hope to be so lucky.