The First Supper (Japan, 2019) [NYAFF Winter Showcase 2020]

The first feature by writer/director Shiro Tokiwa, The First Supper tells the story of a family that has gathered for the funeral of their patriarch, Hitoshi (Masatoshi Nagase), who has died of a terminal illness. Daughter Miyako (Erika Toda) and son Rintaro (Shota Sometani) are surprised to learn that stepmother Akiko (Yuki Saito) has cancelled the expected catered meal and is instead cooking herself, as dictated by Hitoshi’s will. As each course is served, memories surface and the story of the family takes shape. Fried eggs with cheese was the first meal Hitoshi cooked for his kids; mushroom pizza was what Hitoshi cooked when he took the family hiking for the first time; and miso soup was the first meal where Miyako and Akiko clashed. Through these memories we discover there is an older stepbrother Shun (Yosuke Kubozuka) who hasn’t been seen by Miyako or Rintaro in many years. Shun does make it to the funeral and even adds his own meal and memories. Eventually, long-held secrets come out, as well as the reasons for why the family members have become distant over the years.

The story in The First Supper is standard for a family drama and the actors and director do a very good job of telling it. All the characters are relatable in some way, including Hitoshi, who the viewer gets to know through flashback sequences as the family members reminisce and talk. The viewer gets to know them all. There is trouble in Miyako’s marriage. Rintaro is confused about what a family should be and is afraid to move forward with his girlfriend. As the memories resurface, the viewer can understand why these adult children are struggling with some aspects of their lives. The memories, illustrated in various flashback sequences, portray both the happy and the sad, and show how a blended family could live together and grow to love each other, as well as what can cause a family to fracture. Eventually we learn that Hitoshi knew how to finally help his family.

The pace is steady with the story unfolding in its own time. Scenes of drunk relatives creating some level of chaos during the funeral dinner are well-timed to stress the trouble that began for the family and led to the cracks in its foundations. As the day wears on, Akiko tells Rintaro and Miyako the big family secret that drove Shun away for years, and this secret threatens to cuse further familial divide.

There is no melodrama in The First Supper. Tokiwa’s story, along with his directing, the actors’ performances, and the cinematography all work together to keep the film in the realm of the everyday. It is poignant without being sappy, and includes a range of emotions, from happiness, to sadness, to anger and confusion. The audience can understand how the characters feel on a meaningful level which contributes to The First Supper being a highly engaging film.

The First Supper is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase 2020 on February 16.