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‘Thicker Than Water’: Family fights and a great comedic turn from Keiko Enoue

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

“Sibling rivalry” is a term often heard; “sibling harmony,” not so much. Brothers and sisters can be like two crabs fighting in a bucket, going round and round with no end or escape — even when they heart-of-hearts love each other.

Such is the case with Kazunari Kanayama (Masataka Kubota), a hard-working salesman for a printing company who one day finds his scapegrace older brother, Takuji (Hirofumi Arai), ensconced in his apartment after serving a stretch in prison for armed robbery. Soon Takuji is cleaning out Kazunari’s savings account for a dubious get-rich-quick scheme, as his younger sibling rages and frets.

Then there is the diligent Yuria Isono (Keiko Enoue), who is running the family print shop and taking care of her bedridden grandfather while her pretty younger sister, Mako (Miwako Kakei), lazes about the office and the family manse. Calling herself an actress, Mako is only a cut or two above an extra, but charms any man who walks through the shop door, including Kazunari, to Yuria’s poorly suppressed fury.

This quarreling quartet are the subjects of “Thicker Than Water,” Keisuke Yoshida’s first film in four years to be based on his own original script. Similar to his 2016 comedy-thriller “Himeanole,” the tone shifts from light comedy to dark drama as the quarrels of its central foursome turn angry and bitter. But Yoshida views his pairs of combatants with compassion, if from a distance.

Also typically for the director, the film is an experiment in structure that shuttles back and forth between two parallel stories, somewhat like a long tennis rally that threatens to descend into tedium. But the wordless ending perfectly captures the true feelings of the foursome, while telling the cold truth about human nature, particularly its tendency to revert to default.

The stories set out on familiar rails: Takuji gets violent payback on the informer he believes put him in prison. He then tells Kazunari he intends to become a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. We already imagine the cops descending, the cell door once again slamming.

Meanwhile, Yuria is besotted with the handsome Kazunari, while he remains studiously oblivious to her overtures. It’s also blazingly obvious he is attracted to Mako. Then a picky client forces Kazunari into a corner only Yuria can extract him from. No idiot, she makes a condition: an amusement park date, which turns into a laugh-out-loud disaster.

The film doesn’t go completely off these rails, but it surprises with character revelations and plot twists. Yuria turns out to be a terrific dancer — in the privacy of her own room. Ne’er-do-well Takuji makes real money and tries to be a good son to his indifferent parents. Straight-as-an-arrow Kazunari reveals a petty, vindictive side, while airhead Mako proves to be sharper about people than her brilliant sister. But none of the above is the final word about any of them.

A manzai comic making her screen debut, Enoue plays Yuria as a competent boss (if one subject to emotional blowups), dutiful daughter (who resents her duties) and bossy older sister (with a massive inferiority complex vis-a-vis her thin younger sibling). Enoue expresses these warring impulses with the obvious fat-girl gags, but also with nuance and feeling. The best thing in the movie, she goes above and beyond the call of funny.