Film / Reviews

'The First Supper': An old-fashioned look at the family unit

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Many are the Japanese films themed on food, families and funerals. Rare is the one that, like Shiro Tokiwa’s “The First Supper,” combines all three.

Scripted by Tokiwa, a prolific maker of TV commercials, music videos and shorts, the film may look like a play for a box-office trifecta. But, in his feature debut, Tokiwa rejects the saccharine, weepy local commercial norm while reaching back to an earlier, more naturalistic style of Japanese filmmaking. Veteran cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto, who has worked with Takashi Miike, even uses the low-angle interior shots that were a trademark of 1950s “Golden Age” master Yasujiro Ozu.

But Ozu was a virtuoso at compression and elision who made a film, “Late Spring” (1949), about the social pressure on a contentedly single woman (Setsuko Hara) to marry — and then famously omitted her wedding. In contrast, Tokiwa spells out everything, TV drama-like, from surprising plot turns to hidden emotions. He also cycles back and forth between past and present in a rhythm as regular and predictable as the sunrise.

The First Supper (Saisho no Bansan)
Rating
Run Time 127 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens NOV. 1

That said, the film tells truths about its central family that go beyond melodramatic revelations to a messier and more troubling reality.

It begins with the wake for the family’s patriarch, Hitoshi (Masatoshi Nagase), who has died of a terminal illness. His anxious son, Rintaro (Shota Sometani), a struggling freelance photographer, arrives at the family home in the countryside, as does his quick-tempered daughter, Miyako (Erika Toda), now married with two young children.

When they find that their stepmother, the gentle-mannered Akiko (Yuki Saito), has canceled the order for catered food, they and the other guests are upset, since a steady supply of comestibles is expected. Then, from the kitchen, Akiko brings in eggs fried with a slice of cheese — an item never served at the standard wake. What’s going on?

Akiko, we learn, has planned a menu using dishes associated with Hitoshi, telling Rintaro and Miyako that he specified them in his will. The eggs, we see in a flashback, were the first things he ever cooked for his kids, while Akiko was hospitalized with appendicitis. How heartwarming.

Still in the flashback, we see this happy family dynamic change with the arrival of Shun (the single-named Raiku), Akiko’s quiet teenage son from a previous marriage. He and the 11-year-old Miyako (Nana Mori) butt heads over the miso soup — he likes it made one way, she another — but he is befriended by the 7-year-old Rintaro (Ryo Togawa), who longs for a big brother. And Akiko comes up with a compromise soup that pleases both Miyako and Shun.

This segues into an upbeat, unforced story of how a blended family can — with patience — love and understanding, become mostly happy. Not a story often told in Ozu’s day.

But, back in the present, the sweetness and light of an earlier time is absent. For one thing, Shun is missing. “Why should he come?” Miyako curtly asks. “He’s an outsider here.” We are, we realize, in need of some facts.

We get them, along with more dishes and the stories behind them, as well as a development that threatens to rupture the family along its original fault lines. Also, after the wake and funeral comes a meeting where everything surfaces, including age-old antagonisms. It’s all something of an overload.

But the late, lamented Hitoshi rightly has the last word — and bite.

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