After weathering divorce demands from his wife, losing his beloved driver’s license and coming face to face with his own mortality, Japanese director Yoji Yamada’s irascible, curmudgeonly, secretly loving retiree Shuzo Hirata returns for the third and (no promises) final entry in his Tokyo family dramedy series, What a Wonderful Family! 3: My Wife, My Life. Now nearly 90 years old, Yamada is proving to be as nimble with domestic dramatics and physical pratfalls as he was during his Tora-san years. After ambitiously rebooting Ozu’s classic Tokyo Story Yamada found a fourth, possibly fifth, wind in examining contemporary Japanese family life and struck gold with the cheekily titled What a Wonderful Family! If the robust response during the closing screening at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival is any indication, Wonderful Family! 3 should receive the same warm welcome in Asia-Pacific, and beyond, as the first two installments did in 2016 and ’17 — not surprising given that it’s practically the same film, no matter how charming it may be.
Yamada, again writing with Emiko Hiramatsu, has no intention of reinventing the wheel for part three, but he does shift the focus a tiny bit once again. The story begins with the Hirata clan getting ready for an average day. Konosuke (Masahiko Nishimura) is on his way to Hong Kong for a meeting, his mother Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) is still off to her writing class, patriarch Shuzo (Isao Hashizume) is planning a day of golf and sons Kenichi and Shinsuke are fretting over cram school and allowances. Presiding over all this is Konosuke’s wife Fumie (Yui Natsukawa), somehow wrangling all the moving parts and getting everybody fed, clothed and out the door to their respective lives on time and in good health.
We then get a look at how Fumie’s day goes, which is a lot of cleaning, cooking, errands, organizing — and maybe pining for her days as a flamenco student — before the late shift starts, and the kids come home, greeting her with a thoughtless “I’m hungry” before promptly leaving the kitchen. One day, though, brings a break in Fumie’s routine: A neighborhood burglar (prolific character actor Takashi Sasanoin a cameo) breaks in, stealing a watch and 400,000 yen (just under $4,000) in cash. Sensitive brother-in-law Shota (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and headstrong sister-in-law Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima) sympathize, but when Konosuke returns that night, he reacts quite differently. Not only does he play the victim (he earned that money!), he accuses Fumie of being no better than a thief for squirreling away rainy day funds (again, from his salary), and mocks her for having the luxury of “napping while I’m working.” He wishes he had her “easy” job. He never asks if she’s okay. That prompts Fumie to retreat to her family home in the small town of Motai. The family, naturally, collapses, there’s another Hirata meeting and Konosuke comes to his senses.
With its endless stream of comments about how Fumie’s work indeed has value (second wave feminism has been saying this since the 1960s) and that “housewife” is indeed a job, Wonderful Family! 3 is as on-the-nose as it comes. Yamada and Hiramatsu ever so delicately call out the retrograde thinking that belittles Fumie’s life, but never dip into fury. Fumie is more hurt than angry, and actually shoulders the blame for being tired. Shigeko tempers her indignation. Tomiko chides herself for not acting sooner when she knew Konosuke was becoming “just like his father.”
Regardless of the film’s minor pleasures — Shigeko’s bumbling husband Taizo (Shozo Hayashiya) chief among them — it drops the ball by continually teasing a great personal awakening storyline for Fumie similar to Tomiko’s in part one. At first it looks as though she’s going to damn the torpedoes and start flamenco lessons again. Then there are hints that she’s going to get a job and find some “real value” for herself. Both B-plots are dropped before they really develop in favor of less challenging bonding moments with old friends in Motai (admittedly great) and reconciliation with Konosuke we never see.
But giving Fumie a life isn’t Yamada’s point; she has a life as Mrs. Hirata. The point is acceptance of the ever-shifting modern family dynamic and its resilience. And despite Fumie, Tomiko, Shigeko and Shoto’s wife Noriko (Yu Aoi) never quite getting woke, a pesky sitcom vibe and a bloated run time, Wonderful Family! 3 has a sweetness that’s hard to resist. Masashi Chikamori pulls his camera back a bit this time around to put Fumie and Konosuke in the eye of the proverbial storm, and Joe Hisaishi’s score hits the right jaunty or melancholy notes at just the right times.
Production company: Shochiku Studio
Cast: Isao Hashizume, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Masahiko Nishimura, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Yu Aoi, Tomoko Nakajima, Shozo Hayashiya
Director: Yoji Yamada
Screenwriter: Yoji Yamada, Emiko Hiramatsu
Producer: Hiroshi Fukasawa
Director of photography: Masashi Chikamori
Production designer: Tomoko Kurata
Editor: Iwao Ishii
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival
World sales: Shochiku Studio