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It’s hardly news that drinking is a big part of life in Japan and that drunkenness is culturally tolerated. In Japanese movies the guy who passes out blotto in the genkan (entryway) of his apartment is typically framed as a sympathetic figure.

But what if the family patriarch returns home in this state night after night, decade after decade? In Kenji Katagiri’s offbeat but hard-hitting “A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic,” a long-suffering wife and two daughters come to hate the drinking and, after years of abuse and neglect, the drinker.

Based on an autobiographical web comic by Mariko Kikuchi, the film may sound grim: “Leaving Las Vegas” in Japan. But Katagiri, whose one previous feature was 2018’s “Room Laundering,” begins it with warm pastel colors, perky accordion music and comically surreal images, like a TV family drama eager to please with off-kilter charm.

A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad's an Alcoholic (You to Bakemono ni Naru Chichi ga Tsurai)
Rating
Run Time 95 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens NOW SHOWING

We first meet our heroine, Saki Tadokoro, as a young girl running down a steep river bank to greet her soused father (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) who is partying with his baseball teammates. Midway she launches into the air and flies in slow motion toward his arms. This dreamlike image becomes the film’s central metaphor: Saki trusts her dad to catch her, which he does, but the look on his face is one of distress, not delight. Drinking, we soon see, is his Get Out Of Fatherhood card.

It’s also a bonding ritual with clients and a social lubricant with friends, but unlike the people he clinks glasses with, Toshifumi Tadokoro is an alcoholic. One sip leads to another and, hours later, he’s passed out in the genkan again.

The film’s cutesy style is a distancing device but it also reflects how the teenage Saki (Honoka Matsumoto) deals with her problems by drawing manga. Meanwhile, her sister, Fumi (Yui Imaizumi), seems to float above it all while her mother, Saeko (Rie Tomosaka), is a fervent follower in a religious cult. When prayers aren’t enough, though, Mom tries a final means of escape — and Dad quits drinking in response. Of course, it can’t last.

Since Saki puts her feelings in manga form, the film’s manga-esque look and interior monologues, with thought balloons appearing above her head, are both natural and revealing. “Can I turn what I hate into something awesome?” she ponders.

Judges of a manga contest think so: Saki wins and, at age 24, starts a career. She also finds a boyfriend, the seemingly sincere Satoshi (Shogo Hama), who turns out to be a gaslighter and control freak. Even so, Saki can’t leave him. “I cling to relationships to cope with loneliness,” she thinks in another balloon.

There is more to come in both Saki’s life and her father’s slow suicide by alcohol. Why, I wondered, don’t his drinking buddies and the down-to-earth owner of his favorite bar (Tamae Ando) intervene? Why doesn’t he try counseling? The film doesn’t answer these questions, perhaps because its real-life models didn’t either. In this and other ways, the film is quietly honest.

As Saki, Matsumoto is her usual quirky, charming, sad-eyed self, but with a new depth of feeling, as Saki’s childhood love for her father gives way to anger and finally indifference.

Meanwhile, Shibukawa’s performance as Toshifumi exposes the emptiness beneath his nice-guy facade. The film’s well-earned tears are less for him than for his rejection of intimacy, for his life that ends unlived.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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