The family drama genre is usually a mixed bag, especially when it has comedic elements that are meant to offset the drama and prevent the film from being a total drag. If the film leans too much towards comedy, it will dilute the power of the drama and even the reality of the situation. If it veers too much towards drama, ironically, it will also dilute the reality and even take the film into unintentionally comedic territory. So a delicate balance between the two is required to achieve greatness. Enter director Shuichi Okita, who has made successful comedy-dramas like The Woodsman and the Rain (2011) and A Story of Yonosuke (2013). Mohican Comes Home is his first family drama. With a talented cast assembled with young talent and acting veterans and a relatable story at hand, will Okita succeed in making another great film?
Ryuhei Matsuda stars as Eikichi, a failing rock musician who hasn’t really amounted to anything worthwhile in life after 7 years in Tokyo. The only ray of sunshine in his life is the slightly ditzy and very pregnant Yuka (Atsuko Maeda). She decides to declare her pregnancy to Eikichi’s family, despite his reluctance to go back to his hometown. So a long ferry ride later, they both arrive to meet Eikichi’s family, consisting of Koji (Yudai Chiba), Eikichi’s timid younger brother; Haruko (Masako Motai), Eikichi’s optimistic mother and last but certainly not least, Osamu (Akira Emoto), Eikichi’s grouchy father. The meeting of father and son could have not been any worse but in a random change of thought, Osamu brags to family and friends about becoming a grandfather and plans a party. Osamu then collapses after a drunken fit and is taken to the hospital, where he’s diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Upon hearing the tragic news, Eikichi and Yuka have no choice but to postpone their return to the big city.
This movie was a huge surprise for me. For a story such as this, it has all the ingredients of an inspirational family drama. A dying parent, a deadbeat child trying to make amends, uplifting moments of family togetherness and an ending that should be an emotional crescendo. Yet, Mohican Comes Home plays these tropes out in such an understated and even off-kilter way, that it becomes extremely endearing. The film is not really a comedy, nor is it really a drama; it basically is a slice-of-life with all the happiness and sadness that comes with it, but Okita directs the film for all of the story’s worth, to great effect.
One refreshing change that Okita executes is that there is not one drop of sentimentality to be found here at all. Moments of potential tragedy are either played comically or farcically, but never stripped of their reality. The ending of the film had me gasping with shock and hilarity, yet it still felt surprisingly human. Character interactions are intimately realized and easily endear the audience to the characters i.e. a scene when Yuka learns how to gut a fish from Haruko after failing miserably on her first try. There are no big emotional moments like soul-bearing reconciliations or incredibly cloying moments in the rain (although there is a scene set in the rain); the family gradually come to terms with each other in its own quirky way, but it never feels like the film is doing it for the sake of being quirky. There’s a scene that had me laughing due to the absurdity of it all and it involves a pizza that Osamu remembers eating fondly and Eikichi tries to find it for him which leads to a competition between three delivery boys.
The actors certainly pay up on their end of the bargain and Okita gets his money’s worth. Matsuda certainly looks the part of a grungy musician but his usual understated approach makes Eikichi surprisingly relatable and even charismatic at times. Maeda brings out the slacker charm that made her so likable in Tamako in Moratarium as Yuka, the surprisingly bubbly mother-to-be. Motai plays the loving mother Haruko with ease while Emoto inhabits the clichéd “crazy old man” archetype as well as one would hope (when his backstory is gradually revealed, it makes his behaviour believable to the point that Eikichi isn’t really that far from the proverbial family tree). Koji, meanwhile, clearly comes from the mother’s side, as evident by Chiba’s shy performance.
As for flaws, there are hardly any that come to mind. The two-hour running time could be shortened a bit, but the time allocated to developing the characters is well-utilized. And for those who are expecting the tropes of the family drama genre will be either end up being surprised or disappointed. Or even both.
Mohican Comes Home finds Okita turning the family drama genre on its head while its stellar performances and refreshing storytelling guarantee that this fantastic film goes out like a rock-star.
Mohican Comes Home received its North American premiere as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film on Thursday July 14 at 7pm at Japan Society.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-Momatic Reviews.