Japanese mystery writers have long supplied fodder for TV shows and films, but mysteries of the puzzle-plot sort have reached a saturation point. Or maybe it’s just me, fed up with stories that turn on such vital questions as — in the immortal words of Raymond Chandler — “who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window.”
Though labeled a “mystery writer” (a label he reportedly rejects), Kotaro Isaka has inspired a very different sort of film.
Director Yoshihiro Nakamura’s “Fish Story” (2009), “Golden Slumber” (2010) and “Potechi” (2012) are all based on Isaka’s fiction, with intricately constructed plots that revolve around eternal human dilemmas, such as finding connection and meaning in an indifferent universe, rather than the eternal question of whodunit. And the genius detective, that central figure in so many Japanese mysteries shows and films? Nowhere in sight.
The latest film inspired by Isaka’s work is Michihito Fujii’s “Oh! Father,” which similarly flouts the conventions of mystery movies in Japan, while also being reminiscent of local, quirky and eager-to-please family dramas.
Though the story winds its way to a conclusion that is entirely predictable; the puzzle at its center is never satisfactorily solved.
That puzzle is implied in the title, with teenage hero Yukio (played by 24-year-old Masaki Okada) living at home with his mother and four — count ’em — fathers.
I suppose polyandry is practiced here, just as it is in the rest of the world. What makes the film’s menage a cinq comically incredible is that all four daddies claim Yukio as their son while living more or less harmoniously under the same roof. Surprisingly, Mom never makes an appearance.
The fathers are all nice, mildly eccentric guys who have Yukio’s best interests at heart. There’s the brainy professor, Satoru (Shiro Sano), the macho physical education instructor, Isao (Daisuke Miyagawa), the professional gambler, Taka (Masahiko Kawahara), and the former host-club gigolo, Mamoru (Jun Murakami). Each has a unique skill set that has helped their shared offspring become an unusually well-rounded, well-adjusted young man.
None of which matters, however, when a pretty classmate (Shioli Kutsuna) with a crush on Yukio finds out about his five-parent household and has to stifle her gag reflex, to his undisguised annoyance.
The story proper begins when Masaki sees a briefcase being stolen by a passerby. The owner, it turns out, is an associate of a candidate for prefectural governor. Interest in the election is high among Yukio’s four fathers and they join forces to catch the thief.
Meanwhile, Yukio’s friend and classmate, Masaji, gets on the wrong side of some local chinpira (apprentice gangsters), who force him to become a gang courier.
When the poor mope fluffs the job, not only the chinpira but also their saturnine elderly boss (Akira Emoto) are not pleased. When Yukio tries to help his pal out of this jam, he is taken hostage, though not by the boss. In the meantime, the police have found two dead bodies connected with the briefcase theft.
Realizing that Yukio is in trouble, his four fathers try to find him and, in the process, become involved in the whole briefcase business — a crime of layered mysteries. They also form a sort of amateur sleuth collective, each dad with his own special talent. Imagine a silly, if clever, middle-aged version of the “Fantastic Four,” minus the superpowers.
Meanwhile, Yukio remains an out-of-action hero, though he is not quite the passive prince waiting to be rescued.
As Yukio, Masaki Okada spends much of the film looking vaguely embarrassed, which is understandable given his blatant miscasting. He may be one of the hottest young male stars at the moment, but he is obviously still too old for the role. He should be playing a gangster-battling cop, not a hogtied kid.
And by the end, the question of who Yukio’s true father is shouldn’t be a mystery anymore, though if Mom and her four men are truly happy with the current absurd situation — and who are we to say they aren’t — a DNA test can surely wait.
Fun fact: Masaki Okada seems to be traveling backwards in time with his roles. In Sang-il Lee’s 2010 drama “Akunin (Villain)” he played a rich college boy who becomes a murder suspect. Now, four years later, he is back in high school in “Oh! Father,” and “Idai Naru, Shurarabon (The Great Shurara-bon),” a 2014 comedy about an aristocratic family with unusual powers.