Film / Reviews

'Only The Cat Knows': The dying days of a 50-year marriage

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

The husband who gets home late and says nothing to his wife but “furo” (“bath”), “meshi” (“food”) and “neru” (“sleep”) is a cliche about Japanese married life that is often not far from the truth. The macho ideal has traditionally been the quiet type and Japanese women have traditionally been expected to endure non-communication from their mates and find conversation partners in children and friends. Or cats.

The elderly couple in “Only The Cat Knows,” Shotaro Kobayashi’s spritely new film based on Keiko Nishi’s popular manga, seems to fit this cliche to a T. The husband, Masaru (Tatsuya Fuji), barely acknowledges the existence of his wife, Yukiko (Chieko Baisho), even though they have been married for 50 years.

Now retired, he grumps around the house and meets Yukiko’s attempts to converse with grunts and silence. When Yukiko passes the local shogi club where he is a regular, she waves to him, but he ignores her. At home she knits, watches a sappy Korean TV drama and cares for Chibi, a black stray cat she loves dearly. But still, life is lonely.

Only The Cat Knows (Hatsukoi: Otosan, Chibi ga Inaku Narimashita)
Rating
Run Time 104 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens NOW SHOWING

Then Chibi goes missing and Yukiko starts a frantic search, to which Masaru is indifferent. The cat is dead, he tells her. So, she realizes, is their marriage. Soon after, she tells her adult daughter, Naoko (Mikako Ichikawa), she has decided to divorce Masaru. The cat is not the only reason: She spotted her husband in a coffee shop having an animated chat with her former work colleague and one-time rival for Masaru’s affections.

Late-life divorce has become increasingly common in Japan, so the film has a topical theme, but it plays like a drama from the two protagonists’ youth in the early 1960s, when Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki” (“Ue o Muite Aruko”) was a smash hit — and became Yukiko’s lifelong favorite.

In addition to black-and-white flashbacks that could have come from a studio programmer of the era, Kobayashi keeps the atmosphere retro even in the contemporary scenes, if more through leisurely pacing and a gentle-spirited tone than obvious anachronisms.

But the comic bits are pungent and sharp, while the more serious scenes have depth and bite. A period piece this film is not.

Fuji and Baisho both have screen credits going back five decades, but worked together for the first time in this film. As Masaru, Fuji risks becoming an audience hate object, but when the old man reluctantly takes a neophyte shogi player — a gawky young novelist — under his wing at the club, Fuji smoothly shifts gears.

While playing these scenes for dry comedy, he uses them to show the crusty Masaru’s softer, more human side — a process that accelerates after Yukiko decides to divorce him. By the time Masaru finally confesses his true feelings to his wife, we are prepared, from Fuji’s layered performance, to understand and, despite his bad behavior, sympathize.

But the film’s strongest presence is Baisho, who played the long-suffering sister of the feckless hero in the “Tora-san” series (1969-95). As Yukiko, she moves beyond passive endurance to anger, resolve and liberation. Striding down the street after ditching her drab housewife duds for a more youthful look, she is energized, determined and, to the audience, inspiring.

The questions of whether she will find her cat and save her marriage are for a moment secondary: She has found herself.

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