Film / Reviews

'The Nikaidos' Fall': What's in a name? Everything.

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

The weight of tradition threatens to crush a once-great family in “The Nikaidos’ Fall,” a contemporary drama about people with an unhealthy fixation on the past. Iranian director Ida Panahandeh’s film starts in a cemetery and never really leaves the realm of the dead. Its characters are so haunted by a sense of obligation to their forebears, they’re incapable of living for themselves.

Tatsuya Nikaido (Masaya Kato) is the patriarch of the titular clan, and a man whose time passed a few centuries ago. He looks like he’d be happier in a kimono than the suits and overalls he’s required to wear for work at the family seed business, strutting through each scene with the bearing of a kabuki actor who’s just removed his makeup.

In the elegant country home that he shares with his ailing mother, Haru (Kazuko Shirakawa), and daughter, Yuko (Shizuka Ishibashi), the photos of departed relatives maintain a stern watch over the living. As Yuko tells a visitor while showing off the family annals: “All the dead people in this book are waiting for my Dad to do something.”

The Nikaidos' Fall (Nikaidoke Monogatari)
Rating
Run Time 106 mins.
Language Japanese, English

That “something” involves ensuring the continuance of the Nikaido name. Having lost his only son, Tatsuya is pinning his hopes on adopting a son-in-law who can succeed him, and take over the family firm. Meanwhile, Haru is trying to play cupid for her son, in the hope that he can beget an heir the old-fashioned way.

But this is a story where happiness and familial duty tend not to go together. Yuko isn’t interested in getting hitched to Yosuke (Keita Machida), a childhood friend who’s already working for her father and shows every indication of turning into him. She’d rather stick with her current, strictly nonregulation beau (Nelson Babin-Coy). Tatsuya, meanwhile, would prefer to try his luck with his new secretary (Hana Hizuki) than settle for his mother’s proposed match, the ingratiating and slightly creepy Miki (Kayo Ise).

The film’s on-the-nose English title should give you an idea of where all this is heading.

“The Nikaidos’ Fall” is reminiscent of Junichiro Tanizaki’s “The Makioka Sisters,” in its depiction of a family whose obsession with respecting the old ways all but dooms it to extinction. Panahandeh’s script, co-written with editor Arsalan Amiri, keeps that obsession in the foreground of almost every scene, which can give the narrative a rather deterministic feel. At home, at work, at karaoke, all the Nikaidos want to talk about is succession. The filmmakers, like their characters, seem more interested in how they think Japanese people ought to behave than in how they actually do.

This is the latest entry in Nara International Film Festival’s “Narative” series, in which overseas directors helm Japan-set productions. Panahandeh has spoken of watching movies by Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Masaki Kobayashi as a child, and she’s so in thrall to the old masters of Japanese film that “The Nikaidos’ Fall” risks feeling like the cinematic equivalent of a tribute band.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. While there are few surprises during the film’s journey toward its glum conclusion, it’s an attractive trip all the same.