Despite a career spanning nearly three decades, Yukiko Mishima hasn’t appeared on many lists of up-and-coming Japanese female directors, mine included. One reason: She had a relatively late start, not releasing her first feature, a drama based on the Junichiro Tanizaki story “The Tatooer,” until 2009. Another reason: Her five films to date have not won major festival awards abroad or racked up big box-office numbers at home.
Mishima’s sixth and newest film, “Dear Etranger,” may not change that. It had its world premiere at the 18th Jeonju International Film Festival last May, but not in the competition. Nonetheless, this film about a middle-aged man’s struggles with the consequences of divorce and remarriage, particularly a tween stepdaughter who can’t stand the sight of him, represents an advance and, I hope, a breakthrough.
Realism in Japanese family dramas, even the better ones, does not often get this real. But the film is not a two-hour wallow in misery, designed to extract hankies from purses. Change, we see, can bring not only loss and regret, but also relief and even the possibility of happiness, however temporary.
Based on Kiyoshi Shigematsu’s 1996 novel of the same Japanese title, Haruhiko Arai’s script covers years in the lives of his principals with conventional flashbacks, if with unconventional freshness, as drawing from life in the messy raw, including the sort of interior truths that reveal themselves only rarely — or disastrously.
The aforementioned protagonist, Makoto Tanaka (Tadanobu Asano), divorced his first wife, Yuka (Shinobu Terajima), four years ago and married the younger Nanae (Rena Tanaka), who is also batsu-ichi (“one strike,” or divorced). Nanae left her husband, the alcoholic, dissolute Sawada (Kankuro Kudo), because he beat her and her young daughter. Makoto and Yuka split when they couldn’t agree on a second child: He wanted one, she didn’t.
Makoto continues to see his daughter, Saori (Raiju Kamata), who lives with her mother and new stepfather, while he tries to be a good parent to Nanae’s two daughters — cute little Eriko (Miu Arai) and sullen sixth-grader Kaoru (Sara Minami).
When Nanae announces that she is pregnant, however, Makoto wonders out loud whether they need another child, and the fissures in their marriage, already visible, widen. Meanwhile, bad news keeps coming for various characters, career ruin and fatal disease among them.
This is the trajectory of many a family drama here, with personal calamities arriving like clockwork. But Makoto refuses to act like a genre cliche. Similar to the biblical Job, he is subjected to endless trials and torments, though they are more psychological than physical, including humiliation, rejection and adolescent insolence. Nonetheless, he is slow to abandon his ideal: a family in which he is more than the title “etranger” (stranger).
As Makoto, Asano brings his trademark coiled force, if not his usual toe-curling violence. Makoto’s anger, however, boils over scarily when he is sorely provoked. A saint he is not. Neither is anyone else in the film, for that matter.
And yet there is something to like about all of them. The film accomplishes this less by sentimentalizing and idealizing them than presenting them in the human round. Even the wife-beater, we see, has his decent side — though if I were this movie’s God, he’d be my first candidate for Job.