Film / Reviews

'My Uncle': Time to wake up and smell the coffee

by Mark Schilling

Some movies are like a relaxing soak in a bubble bath with your favorite rubber duck. Your soul may not soar, but when you finally emerge you feel lighter on your feet and at peace with the world. What’s wrong with that? That was my feeling as I exited “My Uncle,” Nobuhiro Yamashita’s new comedy starring Ryuhei Matsuda as the titular uncle.

As the film begins, this part-time philosophy professor is mooching off his older brother (Kankuro Kudo) as the brother’s irascible wife (Shinobu Terajima) seethes and storms.

The film’s narrator is their son, Yukio (Riku Onishi), a precocious primary schooler who is assigned to write an essay about a family member and, after a bit of trial and error, hits on the afore-mentioned uncle. Not to say that Yukio is an admirer: Uncle is a tightwad, a layabout and a clod at sports. His only talent, it seems, is spouting tortured rationales for everything he does or (more usually) doesn’t do.

My Uncle (Boku no Ojisan)
Rating
Run Time 110 mins
Language Japanese

Based on a 1972 novel by Morio Kita, “My Uncle” has a charmingly retro Showa Era (1926-1989) atmosphere and some amusingly punchy back-and-forth between Uncle and Yukio, with Yukio’s dad, mom and cheeky kid sister contributing to the laughs.

Yamashita has been mining comedy gold about slackers and losers of various descriptions since his first feature, “Donten Seikatsu” (“Hazy Life,” 1999) but “My Uncle” is, in its central duo, a fresh departure from his past output while being up to his usual comic standards.

Uncle may be an absent-minded-professor cliche in everything from his tousled hair and round-frame glasses to his stilted speech and abstracted air, but in Matsuda’s deftly underplayed performance he becomes something more: a comic character both fully formed and existing out of time. One comparison is Tora-san, the wandering peddler who tried and failed to get the girl in the 48 installments of Yoji Yamada’s “It’s Tough Being a Man” (“Otoko wa Tsurai yo,” 1969-1995) series, while changing hardly anything from his battered suitcase to his incurable dislike of steady employment. Not that “My Uncle” will launch a similar franchise, but it does serve up the same sorts of uncomplicated, heart-warming delights.

The story gets underway when Yukio’s busybody aunt (Midoriko Kimura) tries to find a bride for Uncle. Her efforts seem doomed to failure until Uncle locks eyes with Eri (Yoko Maki), a fourth-generation Japanese-American with a sparkly smile who is about to return to Hawaii to run her grandmother’s coffee plantation. Uncle is smitten and Eri, amazingly, reciprocates, but given that he can hardly keep himself in cigarettes, how can he buy a plane ticket to Honolulu?

It’s no spoiler to say that Uncle, with Yukio in tow, accomplishes this miracle. The film’s trailer shows the pair on the the Big Island. The gags that follow play off familiar stereotypes, including locals selling illegal substances and the plantation’s beefy overseer squeezing off rounds from his rifle at the slightest provocation. Also, the plot goes down well-worn paths, beginning with a persistent rival (Shigeyuki Totsugi) for Eri’s affections who keeps turning up at awkward moments.

But the film’s focus stays where it belongs, on Uncle and Yukio, the sort of pairing rare in Japanese films and often cringe-inducing anywhere. Boasting an impressive string of TV credits, beginning with a regular role on the 2012 Hirokazu Koreeda drama “Going My Home,” Onishi plays Yukio as wiser than both his years and his inept uncle, without being annoying. This alone makes him a child-actor stand-out, but he also melds seamlessly with Matsuda’s understated comic rhythms. And as a narrator his delivery is bracingly dry.

So mahalo (thanks) to Yamashita and company for this movie. It makes me want to break out my old Aloha shirts and revisit what the locals call, only half ironically, Paradise.