As a former assistant director to Japanese cinema icon Yasujiro Ozu, Yoji Yamada has sometimes followed and sometimes strayed from his mentor’s footsteps. His long-running Tora-san series of romantic dramedies was an extended riff on the type of populist cinema that Ozu shunned, but Yamada is also the only director to attempt remaking the postwar classic Tokyo Story.
His 2013 homage Tokyo Family introduced the characters and ensemble cast that form the basis for the contentious Hirata clan featured in the subsequent What A Wonderful Family! series. As this sequel to the 2016 original opens, the emotional rift that almost drove grandma Tomiko (Yoshiyuki Kazuko) to divorce her grumpy, often intransigent husband Shuzo (Hashizume Isao) has long been resolved (or buried).
Or maybe not, as Tomiko prepares for some precious personal time on a trip to Scandinavia to view the aurora borealis with her senior writing group. Shuzo, who hates the cold, refuses to accompany her, preferring to remain behind at his eldest son Konosuke’s (Nishimura Masahiko) suburban Tokyo home so he can play golf, drive around with his friends and carouse at the local bar run by his pretty younger friend Kayo (Fubuki Jun). After Shuzo gets involved in a minor traffic accident, Konosuke calls his younger siblings Shigeko (Nakajima Tomoko) and Shoto (Tsumabuki Satoshi) over for a family meeting to convince their dad to quit driving.
Predictably, Shuzo rejects their entreaty, announcing plans to buy a new hybrid instead, and goes off in a huff to Kayo’s bar for a reunion with an old school friend, declaring, “I’ll keep driving until I die.” The next morning, the family discovers that Shuzo’s friend, whom he brought home from the bar the previous evening, has passed away during the night. Immediately they turn to Shoto’s wife Norkio (Yu Aoi), who is a nurse, for guidance, but she’s unable to revive the man and it’s not long before the paramedics arrive, along with the cops asking uncomfortable questions about the guest’s inadvertent death.
The threat of a police investigation hanging over the family nearly tips the film from light comedy over to grim melodrama, with grandpa Shuzo emerging as the principal person of interest. Yamada has something else on his mind, however, by bringing the specter of death into the family circle, not unlike the thematic issues that concerned Ozu. As Shuzo recalls his school days with his deceased friend, a widower with only an estranged daughter who declines to arrange his funeral, waves of reminiscence and regret overwhelm him, prompting the old codger to make a grandly compassionate gesture that would seem far beyond his usual petty concerns.
Overall, the sequel is distinguished by a melancholy, contemplative tone rather than an escalation of family crises, as in the original. As Yamada’s script, co-written with Hiramatsu Emiko, gradually reveals the extent of Shuzo’s grudging humanity, a clearer picture of this sometimes argumentative Tokyo family emerges. Although this approach may lack incident, it opens up the space for consideration of the issues related to mortality that loom over the Hirata family elders and explores the attitudes of individual family members toward their aging parents, a dynamic similar to the preoccupations that Ozu demonstrated in his later career.
In the end, it’s the funeral that brings everyone together, forcing a cessation of hostilities and reconsideration of everyone’s individual, essential role in the family. Yamada emphasizes their interconnectedness in his frequently compact camera compositions, arranging all of the essential players into deep-focus shots that reveal both their affinities and hostilities toward one another. These often interior scenes facilitate his carefully balanced blocking, but sometimes lack the expansiveness inherent in the first film, which favored a greater variety of locations and exteriors.
Hashizume continues to steal nearly every scene that Shuzo appears in, with his overbearing manner and loud opinions, completely overshadowing Yoshiyuki, who played a pivotal role as the put-upon wife in the previous film, but doesn’t figure nearly as prominently here. Similarly, the ensemble of second-generation Hiratas and their spouses are less individualized now that the drama over Shoto’s awkward single status has been resolved by his marriage to gentle Norkio.
Part three of the series, due out in Japan next year, may reveal still-hidden layers of emotional connection among the Hiratas, or it could just as easily veer off into another multifaceted domestic crisis.
Production company-distributor: Shochiku
Cast: Yu Aoi, Hashizume Isao, Nishimura Masahiko, Yui Natsukawa, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Yoshiyuki Kazuko, Kanai Taizo, Nakajima Tomoko, Tsumabuki Satoshi, Fubuki Jun
Director: Yoji Yamada
Screenwriters: Hiramatsu Emiko, Yoji Yamada
Producer: Fukuzawa Hiroshi
Director of photography: Chikamori Masahi
Editor: Ishii Iwao
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Venue: Hawaii International Film Festival