Thicker Than Water (Japan, 2018) [JAPAN CUTS 2018]

Keisuke Yoshida’s feature Thicker Than Water is a delightful, dramatic, and relatable film – even for this reviewer, an only child.

Kazunari (Masataka Kubota) is a salesman for a printing company whose brother, Takuji (Hirofumi Arai), has just gotten out of prison and comes to crash with him. Meanwhile, Yuria (Keiko Enoue) runs the local print shop that fulfills many of the orders from Kazunari’s company. She’s keeping the business afloat and taking care of her ailing grandfather. Her sister, Mako (Miwako Kakei), is a carefree aspiring actress who shirks her responsibilities.

The comedy and tension in the film derive from the fact that the siblings are foils of one another. While Yuria is dour and overweight and preoccupied with practicalities, Mako is slim, bubbly, and determined to follow her dreams. Similarly, while Kazunari is a straight-laced salaryman trapped in the daily grind, his brother is a free spirit with a dark past. Even the way they dig into each other is different. While Kazunari and Takuji sometimes go so far as to come to blows, Mako insults her sister with offhanded comments and small gestures that make Yuria feel inferior. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes, Mako gifts Yuria an intentionally too-tight T-shirt from a trip, and we watch, in real time, as Yuria struggles to get it on in front of a mirror. Other times, Yuria gets the last word, literally. Although Mako purports to know English because it will be useful in her acting career, she struggles to conduct a basic phone conversation with a foreign client at the print shop. Her sister, on the other hand, communicates with ease.

A major plot point revolves around Mako snatching up Kazunari, who Yuria had a crush on. There is a missed opportunity here for dramatic irony, as we learn that Mako is going out with Kazunari at the same time Yuria finds out. The tension could have been heightened if we knew before Yuria and were waiting with bated breath for the big blow up, if there had been suspense rather than surprise.

While the narrative structure – which is linear but cuts back and forth between each sibling pair – can feel contrived at times, especially during the climax, it generally works well. There are some nice mirrored scenes, such as when Kazunari takes both sisters to the same amusement park at different points in the film. In one of the most memorable cuts, we see Takuji beating up Kazunari before cutting to a bowl of what seem to be tapioca pearls, which Yuria scoops up for a New Year’s celebration. While the physicality of some of the siblings’ arguments could come off as unintentionally comedic and flashbacks threaten to become overly saccharine, sentimentality is avoided because these relationships feel real and because each pair faces real-world problems.

The characters feel realistic; there are high stakes and their struggles are relatable as they find love, purpose in life, and professional fulfillment. This is not a redemption story. Takuji returns from prison still up to his old ways, though there is a layer of vulnerability that comes through when he and his brother see each other for who they really are. Similarly, when Mako peels away the artifice, she and her sister are able to have a real relationship. The director avoids being too melodramatic with a realistic ending that eschews sentimentality.

Each sibling relationship explored in Thicker Than Water is more complicated than at first glance, and this makes for a film full of tension, triumphs, and no easy answers.

Thicker Than Water is showing on July 28 at JAPAN CUTS.