Film / Reviews

‘Obon no Ototo’ is one director’s attempt to portray his real life through a fictional self

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

‘Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” quipped Oscar Wilde, but in the film world mining one’s own life for the sake of art — or rather, a script — is an ancient and hallowed practice. The resulting film, however, may have only a tenuous relationship with the filmmaker’s actual biography.

Director Akira Osaki’s bittersweet black-and-white comedy “Obon no Ototo” (“Obon Brothers”) certainly sounds a lot like his own. The film is about a failing director’s struggles to make a new movie while dealing with his cranky older brother and his estranged wife’s demand for a divorce.

The film’s real and fictional director both hail from Gunma Prefecture, have one previous film to their credit — Osaki’s is the 2006 drama “Catchball-ya” (“The Catch Man”) — and are old friends with the scriptwriter for their new project (in Osaki’s case, Shin Adachi).

Other parallels exist, but the point, I think, has been made: “Obon Brothers,” which premiered at this year’s Nippon Connection festival in Frankfurt, is a darkly humorous alternative take on Osaki’s own life and career.

Or is it? His star, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, has been a distinctive presence in dozens of films since his feature debut in Toshiaki Toyoda’s 1998 crime drama “Pornostar.” Shibukawa’s chiseled looks, deep voice and lopsided grin make him instantly recognizable, and though he has played a range of roles, he usually projects the sort of honesty and naivete that makes his characters likable as individuals, even when they are unregenerate slackers. He is no Osaki clone.

Also, the film’s woebegone director, Takashi (Shibukawa), faces a perfect storm of fiascoes unlike anything endured by the critically honored Osaki — though the latter may beg to differ. The film frames Takashi’s various dilemmas and disasters as dry, funny and piercingly real. It gets this difficult balance exactly right, without teetering toward obvious caricature on one side or manufactured tears on the other.

When the story begins, Takashi is serving as live-in cook and caregiver to the recovering Wataru (Ken Mitsuishi), an irritable type who is itching for his sponging younger brother to move out. Meanwhile, Takashi’s matter-of-fact wife (Makiko Watanabe) wants to make their two-month separation permanent, but is considerate enough to allow him to freely visit their young daughter, Wako.

Adding to his woes, a veteran director (Yoji Tanaka) barely glances at a script Takashi has labored on for months with his writing partner and best bud Fujimura (pop singer and actor Koki Okada). Can’t a guy catch a break?

Then the excitable Fujimura begs Takashi to join a double date his girlfriend has planned for her single 30-something pal Ryoko (Aoba Kawai). Takashi reluctantly agrees — and discovers that Ryoko is not only easy on the eyes, but takes an unfeigned interest in his work and him. Takashi feels attracted to her as well, but by now certain lies have been told, including a biggie about his marital status.

This story has screwball comedy potential but Osaki and scriptwriter Adachi ignore this in favor of slice-of-life realism that borders on the depressing but never plunges in. Also, though some of the characters and situations are almost absurd, the film never descends into silliness. Instead, “Obon Brothers” has a spiritual undercurrent that begins as a gag (with Wataru comically peeved about a fortune he receives at a temple) but finally turns serious with an unexpected subtlety. And the “Obon” in the title becomes more than a cryptic reference to o-Bon, the Japanese Buddhist festival of the dead. I won’t say how; just that, after the credits rolled, I felt like throwing a coin in the collection box and praying for the dear departed and suffering humanity — and that Takashi’s second masterpiece be green-lit.