Dear Etranger is an intimate drama about one man trying to balance two families and be an ideal father at a time when others give him or are going through crises. Free from melodrama and idealism, it paints a believable picture of the stresses and strains of maintaining a loving family unit built from the scraps of past relationships.
The film is based on a novel by Kiyoshi Shigematsu and tells the tale of 40-year-old Makoto Tanaka (Tadanobu Asano), an assistant manager at a company. When we first see him, he’s meeting his daughter from his first marriage. He and Saori (Raiju Kamata) are having a dream day out in a theme park but it’s soon to end because this is one of four visits he gets to see her in a year. She has to return home to Makoto’s ex-wife Yuka (Shinobu Terajima) and he has to return to his second family. This new clan consists of a younger wife named Nanae (Rena Tanaka) who went through a messy divorce herself because her ex, Sawada (Kankuro Kudo), was a brute who beat her and their daughter Kaoru (Sara Minami) and threatened their baby Eriko (Miu Arai).
After their respective divorces, Nanae and Makoto formed a bond and the two girls benefited from it as they became a family. A few years later and they now live in seemingly ideal circumstances in a comfortable apartment and there’s a new baby on the way but all is not well. Eriko might be ecstatic at the thought of becoming an older sister but Kaoru is going through her teenage years and rebels against her step-father and mother. Makoto’s job is suddenly cut by his company and he takes on work in an internet store’s warehouse. Makoto and Saori may get along really well but Yuka mysteriously wants to stop her seeing him all of a sudden.
With all of these dramas going on, Makoto finds the pressure mounting and fractures begin to appear in his happy family. But were the cracks already there to begin with? Etranger is French for stranger and the person feeling like an outsider is Makoto. Despite his efforts at being the ideal devoted father, the very same dedication he shows and his uncertainties about family also hurt him as the film explores the competing demands on working parents in Japan and the complexities of maintaining a patchwork family.
At work he doesn’t play the corporate game. He takes all the holidays he can and doesn’t drink socially with colleagues, preferring instead to be with his wife and children. “You can’t spend time with them when they have grown up,” he tells a colleague. This dedication is hard to hold onto in Japanese corporate society which has led him to his career predicament. Things would be fine if Kaoru wasn’t acting up at home and treating him like an outsider. The closer the family the greater the pain when a relative does something to hurt another. Despite his patient handling of Kaoru, her words, all poisonous barbs, and her actions, all petulant behaviour, make it clear she rejects him outright. The emotional violence she inflicts on her Nanae and Makoto is relentless and she goes as far as to defend her old father. For the viewer, seeing her treatment of them is awful and tense since Asano shows his character’s anger and exasperation slowly brewing through his physical bearing. That taut, lean body of his vibrates with tension, his fists curled up or gripping a piece of furniture when pushed beyond his limits by Kaoru’s unreasonable behaviour.
As unfair as these events are, the story refuses to make him a victim or simplify his character or anyone else’s for that matter. We get character histories shown in judiciously used flashbacks at the right moments that contextualise and add emotional textures to the present as Haruhiko Arai’s script skilfully creates full bodied characters with histories, flaws, and strengths.
Kaoru’s behaviour is rooted in her teenage years and abuse suffered. Nanae, seemingly a clingy housewife, is keeping the show rolling and has a tough core revealed in harrowing sequence involving Sawada beating her. He in turn is humanised as a man who just wasn’t able to live a family life. The laid-back performance of Kankuro Kudo, a talented writer and director himself, helps ease the audience into a feeling of some sympathy for Sawada even if he is monstrous. Then there is Makoto. He is hardly blameless as the film shows that his efforts at compartmentalising his life and keeping his two families separate cause a fracture between his personality and ideals. More problematic is his inability to speak to his loved ones about their concerns and his single-minded desire to be a father which might prove to be a little selfish.
The key to solving of Makoto’s issues may lie with understanding his first family. Saori’s troubles parallel Kaoru’s while Yuka’s situation shows how tough employment can be on women who want a career and family. Makoto and the audience are guided to understand this in scenes packed with the right amount of dialogue that peels back how people feel until the plot neatly folds in on itself by bringing everyone together. It could be said that his first wife and daughter merely serve as a way to heal Makoto before they are forgotten about at the end of the narrative but the film is still powerful even if it isn’t even-handed since it shows that beautiful side to family life and why people work hard for it and it’s down to the sizzling chemistry between the actors.
Asano and Terajima, two titans of acting, have a few scenes together but they burn with passion and familiarity. Listening in on their talks about past dates and marital woes is exciting stuff and you can imagine their characters being together out of love and you can sense the loss the two share over being apart. Likewise, seeing Asano and Raiju Kamata play father and daughter is equally packed with profound feelings of joy as the two relax naturally in each other’s presence and lean on each other. While the characters of Terajima and Kanata may be given short shrift at the end of the film, they aren’t forgotten by the audience. Another great scene is the moment when Makoto asks for Nanae’s hand in marriage and it’s a beautiful one because we understand how much it means to her. Rena Tanaka’s face beams with equal parts happiness and relief.
This is the sixth feature film of Yukiko Mishima and she shows an even hand in the directorial department, keeping the rhythm of the film steady and sleek so scenes run by with the right amount of time to keep the drama flowing. She uses a handheld camera in the family home accentuates the drama and make the space claustrophobic, an emotional minefield characters have to navigate, while she captures the expansive spaces outside for moments of relief and exploration as characters escape emotional situations. Her feeling for dramatic moments places the characters front and centre on the screen so the simple act of going out for a cigarette or singing solo in a karaoke booth takes on massive symbolism. All of this makes the film an engaging watch.
The message of Dear Etranger is never give up. Makoto keeps working hard and while you have the sense that things won’t be easily fixed, people will find a place in their new patch-work families. The characters on the screen will make do with what they have, just like everybody in the audience, and hopefully love their nearest and dearest better.
Dear Etranger is showing on November 9 at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.