Film / Reviews

'Bento Harassment': Learning lessons with lunchboxes

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Japanese movies and TV dramas often feature scenes of mothers making elaborate bento lunches from scratch for their offspring. Seeing these women washing rice in icy water with bare hands before the crack of dawn I reflect back to my own school lunches of PB&J or bologna sandwiches, assembled in minutes by my mother and devoured in even less time by me. Since the other kids brought similar comestibles from home, I had little cause for envy — or pride.

The heroine of Renpei Tsukamoto’s family comedy, “Bento Harassment,” is not the usual Japanese mother laboring over bento as an act of love — or so her smiley-faced wieners will make her kid’s classmates “Ooh” and “Aah.” A single mom living on Hachijojima, an island nearly 300 kilometers south of Tokyo, Kaori (Ryoko Shinohara) holds down two jobs to support her teenage daughter, Futaba (Kyoko Yoshine), but the girl barely deigns to acknowledge her existence, let alone help around the house.

Fed up with Futaba’s bad attitude, Kaori has a wicked idea: Make comical box lunches that express her annoyance. When Futaba opens her bento and sees an angry-faced rice ball and cut-up nori spelling out “Wash your dishes!” she cries out in surprise — and her classmates have a good laugh.

Bento Harassment (Kyo mo Iyagarase Bento)
Rating
Run Time 106 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens June 28

Rather than consign the bento to the trash, Futaba finishes every delicious bite and, though she still says nary a word at home, Kaori sees a glimmer of hope. She keeps beavering away at the bento, making an edible glue bottle one day, the J-horror ghost Sadako the next. Her box lunches become the talk of the school — and the subject of Kaori’s new blog, which quickly goes viral.

Based on a real-life blog by a real-life Kaori that rose to No. 1 on the Ameba hosting site, the opening scenes of “Bento Harassment” offer fresh twists on the perennial theme of inter-generational strife as well as on familiar foodie movie tropes. The script, by Tsukamoto, a TV drama veteran whose feature credits include the hilarious 2009 comedy “Wig,” then descends into formula, though Kaori remains a spiky exception to the self-sacrificing genre rule.

As Kaori, Shinohara is also more laid-back than the tightly wound movie mom norm. Despite her long reign as a TV drama queen, including her turn as a detective in the hit “Unfair” series, Shinohara has no diva airs whatsoever. Instead, her Kaori impresses as natural and unaffected, if capable of righteous anger. This, together with her imaginative bento boxes, creates an air of inevitability: If the tough-love Kaori can’t triumph over adolescent rebellion, no one can.

But first we must sit through a treacly subplot about a single father (Ryuta Sato) struggling with a kindergarten-age son and turning to Kaori’s blog for help. Also a level-headed older daughter (Rena Matsui) and a trio of quirky female pals who give Kaori advice and provide comic relief are straight from the standard character toolkit.

But those bento are the creations of an original mind — and are hard to imagine anywhere else. Or maybe it’s just me, reflecting back again: At Futaba’s age I was not looking forward to Mom’s funny culinary masterpieces, but gnawing on rock-hard pizza in the school cafeteria. What does this girl have to complain about?

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