The opening of Yuki Tanada’s new film “My Dad and Mr. Ito” promises a comedy of the quirky family variety.
The 34-year-old Aya (Juri Ueno) and her 54-year-old lover (Lily Franky), whom she calls “Ito-san” (Mr. Ito), are living in age-inappropriate, tight-budgeted bliss when Aya’s crotchety father (Tatsuya Fuji) shows up one day and announces that he has come to live with them.
Laughs follow, mostly prompted by Dad, who starts gruffly interrogating Aya and Ito as soon as he walks through the door. But similar to Tanada’s earlier films, most recently her road movie “Romance” (“Round Trip Heart,” 2015), these three characters are not gag machines but flawed individuals with real-life problems shared by millions of their contemporaries. Beneath its light comic surface, the film is serious, if never sentimental.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||119 mins|
Problem No. 1, as far as Dad is concerned, is not only the gap between Aya and Ito’s ages, but also their lack of anything resembling middle-class ambition. A former teacher, Dad didn’t raise his only daughter to be a bookshop clerk, attached to a middle-aged guy whose job is preparing school lunches.
But what the unsmiling Aya sees as an irritating burden, the unruffled Ito views as an elder who deserves consideration.
He buys Dad his very own dining table chair — padded and aquamarine no less. He remains unperturbed when the old man starts ranting about the sauce used on the tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets), and even runs out to buy Dad his favorite Worcestershire sauce. A friendship begins to bloom.
Aya, however, is not so easily placated, convinced as she is that Dad is up to something strange on his daytime wanderings. At Ito’s suggestion, she disguises herself right down to her shoes and follows Dad like a B-movie detective. This is funny enough, if not what she discovers: a lonely old man struggling to fill up his days. The sight of his slumped back as he watches the sunset from a park bench pains her, but what can she do?
The traditional answer in Japan is to keep Dad with them until the end, whenever that may be. But Dad, not to mention Aya and Ito, are not so conventional. For one thing, the old man suddenly disappears. Aya’s spineless older brother and his weepy, ever complaining wife then surface, but they were the reasons Dad ran off to live with Aya and Ito in the first place. No help from that quarter, in other words.
Working from a script by Hisako Kurosawa, based on a novel by Hinako Nakazawa, Tanada does not build audience identification with Aya in any of the obvious ways. Though Ueno is a talented comic actress (see her 2004 breakthrough “Swing Girls” for proof), she spends much of the film looking grim and, self-sacrificially, every day of her on-screen age, and then some. (Ueno has just turned a gorgeous 30.)
Meanwhile, Franky, who seems to be in every other Japanese film released today, plays Ito as a basically decent, if coolly observant outsider. Saying what needs to be said with a blunt directness, he serves as the film’s reality check.
Finally, veteran Fuji gives Dad a heart and soul as well as a scowl. As he and Ito bond over gardening and home repairs, we see a man who has skills and interests that in his old age are sadly withering. And he also shows that he can smile.
Tanada is not one for convenient happy endings, however. She does leave us with at least the possibility of hope, without softening any of her trio’s less-than-ideal realities. How she does it, I won’t say — only that it left me in tears, though that had something to do with me having a grown-up daughter of my own.
Not that I plan to show up at her door, suitcase in hand, anytime soon.
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