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By now there are many films about single fathers, but for me the eye-opener was 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer.” In it, Dustin Hoffman plays a workaholic adman who struggles to raise his young son after being abandoned by his wife (Meryl Streep), but resists giving up the boy when she returns to claim custody. At first a bumbler who can barely scramble eggs, Hoffman’s character becomes a model parent, a journey that is a source of laughter, tension and, for many male viewers (including this one), self-reflection.

Based on the 2009 novel of the same title by Kiyoshi Shigematsu, Ken Iizuka’s sincere, sentimental drama “Step” is set in a different era and country, but the divorce-court argument of Meryl Streep’s character — that a child belongs with its mother – still echoes in its story of a widower (Takayuki Yamada) raising his daughter from the age of 2 to 12.

Only in “Step,” the message is more indirect, coming from a society in which gender roles are still strictly defined. Luckily for the protagonist, Kenichi, the bearers of this message are well-meaning, kind-hearted types who want only the best for him and his daughter, Miki (played by three child actresses of different ages).

Step (Suteppu)
Rating
Run Time 118 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens TO BE ANNOUNCED

So where, I started to wonder, is the threat to Kenichi and Miki’s father-daughter bond? It arrives, but late in the film and in tried-and-true forms. Otherwise, the story burbles along with ripples of drama, as the sweetly sad score tugs at the heartstrings. It’s somehow calming, if not particularly interesting.

Before seeing “Step,” I thought it an odd choice of material for Yamada, best known for roles ranging from the offbeat (“Hard-Core”) to the erotic (“The Naked Director”). But, given that even industry rebels like Takashi Miike (“The Lion Standing in the Wind”) and Sion Sono (“Be Sure to Share”) make what Sono once described to me as “real Japanese movies,” I shouldn’t have been surprised.

We first meet the family on Miki’s first day of nursery school, a year after the death of Kenichi’s wife, Tomoko, who we glimpse in flashbacks. Miki’s teacher (Sairi Ito) is an outgoing, welcoming sort, but Kenichi’s life as a salaryman and single father soon devolves in a frantic, never-ending round that wears him to a frazzle — and leaves Miki feeling lonely. “She says your hugs are too rushed,” the teacher tells him.

Next, we see Miki, age 7, helping Kenichi hang the laundry — and scolding him for wearing a worn-out shirt. No longer a cute toddler, she has grown into a spirited and self-confident girl. Kenichi brings a friendly coffee shop server (Rina Kawaei) into their lives, but Miki is soon faced with an awkward school assignment: Draw a picture of her mom, whom she knows only from photographs, though she and Kenichi are close to her mother’s loving, understanding parents (Kimiko Yo and Jun Kunimura).

Then we meet Miki at age 11, quickly maturing into adolescence. Meanwhile, Kenichi is deepening his acquaintance with Nanae (Ryoko Hirosue), a work colleague sympathetic to his situation as the single dad of a preteen girl.

All three of the above-mentioned women would make good moms for Miki, with Nanae being especially willing and eager, but Kenichi hesitates. His attachment to his deceased wife is still too strong.

Romantic passion is absent in “Step,” but not the never-forgotten departed. Poor Nanae is forever competing with a ghost.

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