Bento Harassment (Japan, 2019) [Japan Foundation Film Tour 2020]

Inspired by a blog that became hugely popular through the Japanese networking website Ameda, Renpei Tsukamoto’s comedy Bento Harassment combines inter-generational strife with foodie culture to mildly diverting effect. Slight in both storytelling and emotional beats, this is a film with little to add to either of its sub-genres but is so innocuous that it’s hard to begrudge its existence.

Having lost her husband in an accident twelve years ago, single mother Kaori (Ryoko Shinohara) works two two jobs (at a bento shop and a bar) to make ends meet while raising her daughters. The eldest, Wakaba (Rena Matsui), has been no trouble at all, but her sibling Futaba (Kyoko Yoshine) has proved to be a real handful. As she enters high school, Futaba is evidently going through a rebellious phase as early scenes find Kaori struggling to get the petulant girl out of bed out of bed, despite holding a ringing alarm clock to her ear. Futaba seems to resent her mother, shunning her in public and only communicating through curt text messages. However, while Kaori may initially seem to fit the stereotype of the put-upon single mother, she is not only highly resourceful but has an acerbic sense of humor to boot. “If you keep up that attitude, I’ll do things to annoy you,” she warns her daughter.

Those annoying things turn out to be three years’ worth of bizarre bento lunches that cause Futaba to receive unwanted attention from her classmates who are eager to see her mother’s latest creation. Her meals feature Little Red Riding Hood, J-horror icon Sadako, and local comedians Dandy Sakano and Yoshio Kojima, the latter of whom is famous for only appearing in his bathing suit. They also include messages ranging from a terse “Do the dishes” to the warmer “Nothing is wasted” when Futaba experiences disappointment. Meanwhile, Kaori starts documenting her bento through her blog, which leads to an online friendship with widowed single father Shunsuke (Ryuta Sato).

Bento Harassment takes its cue from its source material with loose plotting and scenes punctuated by gags or snappy retorts. This means that characters and details are relayed in anecdotal snippets which occasionally charm and amuse but never provide the depth that would make one fully invest in the central frayed relationship. Indeed, Tsukamoto is so keen to keep matter easily digestible that the specific reason for Futaba’s attitude towards her hardworking mother is left vague beyond the oft-stated assumption that she is just at a difficult age. Meanwhile, Kaori’s tiring daily routine isn’t addressed until the final act when some dramatic impetus is suddenly required to bring about a heartwarming resolution.

In terms of depicting mother-daughter tension during adolescence, the battle of wills that occurs is more of an extended game. For all her gleeful insistence that she is taking ‘revenge’ on her daughter, Kaori’s bento dishes are lovingly prepared while, as much as Futaba professes to be humiliated by such trolling, she nonetheless eats every morsel. The leading ladies are relied on to carry a lightweight conceit that never really justifies its 106 minutes. Shinohara is in fine form as the put-upon yet unflappable single mother, hinting at sacrifices that are barely touched by the breezy screenplay. The convincingly stroppy Yoshine matches her nicely while a sub-plot involving her burgeoning crush on classmate Tatsuo (Kanta Sato), who has become buff after taking up taiko drumming, is adroitly played.

Otherwise, the film trades in a pleasingly colorful aesthetic which incorporates cheerful animation elements and makes the most of its blissful Hachijojima setting, an island that falls under the jurisdiction of Tokyo but is actually some 300 kilometers away from the metropolis. As one might expect, though, the highlights are Kaori’s ingenious bento creations, which serve up laughs aplenty, even if they aren’t quite as mouthwatering as the culinary delights seen in such relatively recent Japanese food films as Little Forest: Summer/Autumn (2014) or Sweet Bean (2015).

Bento Harassment is part of the Japan Foundation Film Touring Programme 2020, which is showing at selected UK venues from January 31 to March 29.