He’s a struggling scriptwriter who watches inertly as his every hope for work is cruelly dashed by forces beyond his control. She’s his shrewish alcoholic wife and the family breadwinner, who takes her mountainous frustrations out on him. In A Beloved Wife, you cringe along with the perfect strangers who get an earful of Mr. and Mrs. Yanagida loudly going at it in public places. Yet there’s something about their toxic relationship that hooks you. Offbeat and bittersweet, it’s a first film that defends the imperfection of human beings and human relationships, though not all viewers are going to follow it there. Still, its weird originality should attract festival curiosity and shine a spotlight on first-time feature director Shin Adachi. It premiered in competition at the Tokyo Film Festival.
The film was produced by Aoi Pro., the company behind Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, and they clearly recognized that beneath the near-constant vulgarity that threatens to engulf the characters lies a beating heart. There’s something courageous about this comic analysis of a young couple who make each other’s life miserable, not least the fact that it’s based on the writer-director’s autobiographical novel.
Adachi is best known as the award-winning screenwriter of Japan’s 2015 Oscar submission 100 Yen Love about a young woman who lets out her rage in the boxing ring. Here, too, the young wife and mother Chika, played without filters by Asami Mizukawa, is a mass of pent-up fury, and her punching bag is her baby-faced husband of 10 years, Gota (Gaku Hamada). In flashbacks that are not well signaled as premarital, we see her enthuse over Gota’s writing talent. But after a decade of him underperforming, the most they have to show for their marriage is a cramped apartment and a sweet little daughter, Aki (Chise Niitsu), whom they both adore. And tons of resentment.
Chika is vocally contemptuous of everything Gota does, even his small successes like having a script go into production. Her constant put-downs of him as a loser soon become tiresome and predictable, as does his meek failure to react. He narrates the film, and one naturally takes his side as the underdog, though sympathy does waver. For one thing, he’s obsessed with the fact that his wife refuses to have sex with him — clearly her way of punishing him — and after two months of unhappily staring at her high-rise red underwear in bed, he’s determined to make it happen.
Opportunity presents itself. When a producer gives him an assignment to write a quickie film as the vehicle for a financier’s mistress, he persuades his wife to take a few days off work and drive him around the area where the film is to be set. He imagines the trip will relax her and put her in a loving mood. With Chika belittling him every step of the way, the whole family sets off on a low-budget trip that predictably veers toward disaster. The key scene with the crass landowner who is bankrolling the movie isn’t as funny as it should be, while Chika’s extreme economizing on the trip feels like a joke not told well.
Little Aki is caught in the middle of their fights on this painful journey, but she’s not what really holds them together. They hurt each other to hurt themselves for failing to meet their own expectations. This vicious circle of self-hatred explodes in a final blowout, which gives some sense of closure, even if its mixture of tears and laughter is only half-convincing.
Both of the lead actors are vivid in different ways. Hamada, who also appears in The 47 Ronin in Debt screening at Tokyo this year, gives the sexually frustrated writer a collegiate immaturity, while Mizukawa’s grating harpy is pretty unforgettable. Music and cinematography lighten up the heavy atmosphere.
Production company: Aoi Pro.
Cast: Gaku Hamada, Asami Mizakawa, Chise Niitsu, Kaho, Kayoko Okubo
Director, screenwriter: Shin Adachi, based on his novel
Producers: Akihiko Yose, Asako Nishikawa
Director of photography: Masami Inomoto
Production designer: Atsuro Hirai
Costume designer: Kei Taguchi
Editor: Yazuyuki Ozeki
Music: Shogo Kaida
Venue: Tokyo Film Festival (competition)
World sales: Color Bird