My Dad and Mr. Ito (Japan, 2016) [Reel Asian 2016]
Yuki Tanada’s latest comedy-drama My Dad and Mr. Ito is so conventional in its set-up and ensuing narrative complications that it could almost have been conceived as an exercise in sidestepping dramatic cliché. Indeed, its premise of a crusty father well past retirement age suddenly moving in with his thirty-something daughter and her lover suggests an awkward but ultimately heartwarming portrait of Japanese family life, complete with episodic developments that will gradually bring everyone closer together. Tanada adheres so closely to this feel good template that part of the story is even devoted to a road trip, probably the oldest trick in the screenwriter’s handbook for getting characters to learn more about one another. Tanada, however, is a filmmaker who has rarely taken the easy option, whether tackling growing pains in her refreshingly spiky early features Moon and Cherry (2004) and Ain’t No Tomorrows (2008) or various forms of ‘shame culture’ in One Million Yen Girl (2008) and The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (2013). Here, she takes what should at most be a pleasant family drama and turns it into something deeper by allowing the seemingly inevitable emotional resolution to remain just out of reach.
It begins with Aya (Juri Ueno) falling into a relationship with her 54-year-old convenience store co-worker Mr. Ito (Lily Franky). They move in together and, when the store is closed down, Aya gets a job at a bookstore while Mr. Ito finds employment in a school cafeteria. Everything is going fine until Aya’s cantankerous father (Tatsuya Fuji) announces that he is coming to live with them, having worn out his welcome at the home of her brother, Kiyoshi (Tomoharu Hasegawa). We are far from the Japan of Tokyo Story (1953) when children did not welcome a parental visit because they had demanding careers to maintain and upwardly mobile lifestyles to lead. Rather, Aya and Mr. Ito have happily adjusted to a new normal where full-time work is thin on the ground so it makes sense to live as thriftily as possible while enjoying the simple pleasures that come with ample leisure time. What the arrival of Aya’s father disrupts, then, is life as semi-vacation: no sooner has he settled in, Aya’s father, a former teacher, is chiding his daughter for still not having a full-time position and questioning her relationship with a significantly older man who has no serious career prospects.
As much as Aya wants to assert her independence despite once again living under the same roof as her overbearing dad, the two settle into a traditional father-daughter dynamic as she tries to satisfy his whims and he criticises her best efforts. He demands a diet of lightly seasoned Japanese food, complains about Aya buying persimmons from the supermarket when they can be picked for free, frowns on her table manners, and states that Aya is well on her way to having a drinking problem when she opens a second can of beer over dinner. All of these slights contribute to Aya feeling like she has been burdened with an unfair responsibility. In terms of his age, Mr. Ito represents the middle-ground, at once recognising that the hard working ethos that Aya’s father extolls no longer guarantee success in a stagnant economy but sensing a certain kinship through their shared enthusiasm for gardening and home improvement tools. Gently assuming the role of generational meditator, Mr. Ito even offers to go out and buy a bottle of is guest’s preferred sauce when he insists that, “Teriyaki is evil, civilised people use Wooster.”
While most family dramas are concerned with relatives and extended members getting to know one another, My Dad and Mr. Ito twists conventions to show how the people who are ostensibly closest to us can remain paradoxical. Curious about what her father does all day, Aya becomes an amateur detective and shadows him around Tokyo but learns little, only witnessing a routine for staving off loneliness. A later episode in the countryside features Tanada’s only slip into cliché with a dramatic set-piece that allows family members to say what they really think of one another, but even the inclusion of this familiar outburst doesn’t bring about mutual enlightenment.
If the film appears more mainstream than Tanada’s early features, Aya is as much of an outsider as some of the director’s previous protagonists: in addition to engaging in an age-inappropriate relationship, she exists on a day-to-day basis without any grand plan, albeit with some measure of domestic security afforded by her job and live-in partner. This attitude is most evident in her quietly rebellious relationship with Mr. Ito about whom she knows relatively little other than that he is divorced. Despite the insistence of her brother and father that she should learn more about Mr. Ito’s past, Aya remains adamant that such details are unnecessary. Ueno plays this beautifully with an expression that seem perpetually pitched between sadness and contentment, while the ubiquitous Frankie complements her nicely with a performance of understated tenderness that seems to exist on the film’s periphery but becomes an integral part of its balanced take on lower-middle class life in contemporary Japan.
A subtly crafted drama that has its heart in the right place but never becomes trite, My Dad and Mr. Ito continues Tanada’s run as one of Japanese cinema’s most sharply observant talents.
My Dad and Mr. Ito was shown on November 10 at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.