Angry Son (Japan, 2022) [OAFF 2022]

For transgender director Kasho Iizuka, representation matters. Starting with his 2011 Pia Film Festival Special Jury Prize-winning autobiographical feature debut, Our Future, his works have been concerned with the lives of people who don’t fit neatly into Japanese society due to factors like class, sexuality, and ethnicity. His latest drama Angry Son tackles immigration and mixed-race experiences through the prism of a single-parent family where parent and child are separated by the issue of nationality.

The titular angry son is Filipino-Japanese Jungo (Kazuki Horike), an unhappy 18-year-old high school student who lives with his feisty Filipina mama Reina (singer and actress GOW) in rural Ota City, Gunma Prefecture. She is an economic émigré with fiery emotions and no outlet and she is looking for love just as her employment at Filipino pubs has dried up during Covid-19 lockdowns. Struggling to support her family back home and her ungrateful son in Japan, times are tough and despite them sharing the same blood, household, and struggles, they barely get along as Jungo gets irritated with her constant cultural faux pas that make them stand out in such a conservative countryside city. As funny as this may be for the audience, his irritation is symptomatic of something deeper which the two have to examine.

The film’s main plot follows Jungo’s search for his absent father, a Japanese man he has only known through child-support payments. But hung upon this is a depiction of everyday domestic disharmony as he and Reina get into conflicts that stem from issues of national identity.

In what may be one of the more naturalistic and honest looks at the lives of Filipinos in Japan – at least far more so than something like Keisuke Yoshida’s crude and rude Come on Irene (2018) – we see the strong personalities of Filipina women who have emigrated for economic reasons. The film also sheds light on difficulties in integration as Reina struggles to access community support, such as rent assistance during the Covid pandemic, and xenophobia, as exemplified through accusations of theft by bigots and bullies. Moments like these present instances of drama that build up context while feeling topical. They also allow Iizuka to broach a meaty subtext of discrimination as he takes time to show how xenophobia can be used to marginalise people.

Without ever getting didactic or losing its edge as a drama, Angry Son draws depth from the subject as we see the insidious effects of xenophobia on Jungo. As he gets angrier, he displays prejudices that suggest he has internalized negative perceptions of foreigners and has become reactionary towards his mother. From there, many wince-inducing conflicts feel like they naturally occur. While the tenor of the fights may vary, clashes come often and are based on his sense of aggrievement at his mother’s presence and her devil-may-care attitude.

Iizuka avoids creating an outright dislikeable main character by writing in scenes containing a goofy accident that undercuts Jungo’s angry behavior so we can laugh at him, using props that remind us of his childlike qualities – he clings to a stuffed animal while in bed – and providing Jungo an array of patient adults and a gay lover who cut him down to size and tease out just why he is angry. This helps engender sympathy towards him and keeps the film from becoming exhausting by allowing varying tones throughout the story.

Probably the most effective aspect of countervailing emotions is Reina herself, a firecracker of a character who is able to match Jungo with witty comebacks and a similarly scorching attitude. However selfish and slapdash she may be, her vivaciousness in the face of hardship inspires laughter and pathos. One can sympathise with her struggle to understand her son and find a place in the community and root for the two as their bond is strained by anger.

The film is powered by impressive debut lead performances. Horike keeps his face set almost permanently to glower before exploding with emotion, while GOW gleefully ratchets up her joy and rage to balance her co-star out in scenes requiring big emotions. They show wide range that keeps the drama twisting and turning like a rollercoaster and, even with big thrills and spills, they capture the more nuanced aspects of loneliness with humanity. 

Beyond this profound and adroitly written show of how discrimination works, the film offers an actual solution by providing a hopeful look at people learning to live together. Reina may be from another country and Jungo may just so happen to be in a gay relationship, but many characters are realistically accepting or supportive. Bigots eventually get overwhelmed by multiple examples of people showing respect and empathy and it is impactful to watch. As such, Angry Son replaces anger with love through fully fleshed-out side characters and a central duo who learn to live together with respect, and that is inspiring in a world where differences still divide us.

Angry Son was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 12 and 17. It next plays at Nippon Connection.