Her Love Boils Bathwater (Japan, 2016) [Japan Foundation Film Tour 2019]

Being nominated for a string of awards as a director’s sophomore feature is no easy feat, let alone winning most of them – all whilst going up against the juggernaut that was Shin Godzilla (2016) no less. Serving as Japan’s entry for the 2017 Oscars, Ryota Nakano’s follow-up to his debut offering (2012’s sadly immemorable Capturing Dad) walked away with Best Picture and Best Director at both the 41st Hochi Film Awards and the 26th Japanese Movie Critics Awards whilst actresses Rie Miyazawa and Hana Sugisaki both enjoyed success there and at the 40th Japan Academy Prize; with such a long list of accolades it is a wonder why this cinematic gem has failed to find a UK home. A rousing celebration of life in the face of certainty, Her Love Boils Bathwater joins a triumphant roster of films for the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme dedicated to that most driving human emotion – love – of which this film has in spades.

A doting single mother employed in a bread store, Futaba Sachino (Miyazawa) is diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Battling with this realisation in her closed-down bathhouse, Sachino is stirred by a phone-call from Azumi (Sugisaki), her teenage daughter who is a target for class bullies So begins the start of the rest of Sachino’s life: tracking down her estranged husband Kazuhiro (Joe Odagiri) and his younger daughter Ayuko (Aoi Ito), she reopens the familial bathhouse going to lengths to pull her family closer together. In an attempt to get closer to her daughter and stepdaughter the three embark on a road trip, picking up freeter Takumi (Tori Matsuzaka) along the way. Soon enough, Sachino finds the strength to tie up hidden loose ends she has kept from her daughter.

On the surface Bathwater seems like your average overload of saccharine, manipulating every emotional response from its audience and leaving them at the mercy of sentimentality and melodrama; this couldn’t be further from the truth if it tried. Seating us at the heart of this family we bear witness to how Futaba’s diagnosis reshapes her priorities and re-evaluates her relationships particularly with Azumi. At its core, Bathwater is more concerned with the strengthening of these relationships instead of the lingering imminence of Futaba’s worsening condition; whilst this serves as her motivation it is not helmed at the driver’s seat of Nakano’s story. Much like the earlier works of Koreeda, this is more a celebration of the important things in life as opposed to the prospect of death and loss. Nakano’s direction of his story raw yet warming; he allows enough time for his audience to organically connect with his characters and has a far superior grasp on timing than in his previous film – the nonchalant brilliance of Kazuhiro’s introduction (and re-introduction to the Sachino household) is executed with such comedic precision we almost forget the seriousness of the previous few minutes.

More than just a celebration of life, the film is a loving celebration of womanhood. The bonds forged and strengthened by its female character is ultimately the driving force behind every turn the film takes. Witnessing Azumi finding her courage against her bullies is just as powerful as seeing her being told the truth about Kimie Sakamaki (Yukiko Shinohara), the lady who sends the family spider crabs every year. It is the pivotal scene between her and her mother before school which proves the most gut-punching, as Futaba can no longer tolerate her daughter’s persistence in avoiding school the two engage in a brutal fight which will no doubt hit home for a good number of mother-daughter relationships. These moments of destructive intensity serve only to build their characters and grow closer to one another. It is as close to a real-life depiction of familial relationships (and women) one has seen in cinema for a long time, especially as far as male writing and directing goes. As we watch the story unfold in its road-movie portion – a brewing storm of truth and emotion if ever there was one – we feel every hard-hitting blow dealt to each woman and boy do they sting.

What makes Her Love Boils Bathwater such a triumphant experience is its female performances, particularly those of Miyazawa, who perfectly encapsulates each stage of Futaba’s journey. A staggering portrayal not of a woman clinging on to life but making heartbeat count with one selfless act after another, Miyazawa brings to life such a monumental and inspirational human being filled with nothing but love for those around her – something which not even cancer could take from her. A sensation to watch even as her condition worsens her strength never wanes, the impact she leaves on the audience reflects that which is left on all those around her slowly dying character. Ultimately, she is motherly in every sense of the word. Sugisaki is also a delight on screen here, especially in her character’s raw moments – one particular scene between her signing with Shinohara’s Kimie comes to mind – where she never fails to stir the audience.

Nakano has come a long way from his uneasy beginnings. Here, he draws out the best of his cast and crew to tell a story of reliant on strong writing and character development and, above all, memorable performances. Whilst its final scene seems forced it does nothing to detract from the two hours leading up to that point. As in life, it is the journey in between the inevitable bookends that matter more than the destination itself, even if it doesn’t go according to plan. Futaba’s final months mirror this, and if it isn’t a reminder to leave a meaningful impact with those we care about in the short time we have here, to put others first, and to not let trivial things hold us back, then nothing is. As uplifting as it is profound, Nakano is worthy not just of every accolade but of everyone’s time and attention

Her Love Boils Bathwater is part of the Japan Foundation Film Touring Programme 2019, which is showing at selected UK venues from February 2 to March 28.