‘What a Wonderful Family!’: Film Review | Hawaii International Film Festival 2016

Hawaii Int’l Film Festival - What a Wonderful Family - H 2016
Courtesy of Hawaii Int’l Film Festival
Skillfully crafted.

Oscar contender Yoji Yamada’s latest feature is a warmly observed contemporary family comedy.

Still cranking out features well into his 80s, renowned Japanese director Yoji Yamada has a few moves left yet, releasing both What a Wonderful Family! and period drama Nagasaki: Memories of My Son (Japan’s 2016 foreign-language Oscar submission) back-to-back over the past year. His latest is a follow-up to 2013’s Tokyo Family, itself a modern-day riff on Yasujiro Ozu’s classic postwar drama Tokyo Story.

Unlike the more sedate tone of its predecessor, Wonderful Family! heralds a shift to lighter fare, representing Yamada’s first real comedy in 20 years, following the conclusion of his near-legendary Tora-san series after more than 40 feature releases. There’s much that international audiences will find relatable and enjoyable in the film, which is graced with a particular empathy for human foibles and appreciation for the specific humor to be found in everyday family life.

Yamada would seem to share the folksy observation that having three generations living under the same roof is a proverbial blessing. For preoccupied businessman Koichi (Masahiko Nishimura), however, it’s just as often a hassle, with two kids underfoot and his parents Shuzo (Isao Hashizume) and Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) occupying the bedroom next door to the one he shares with his long-suffering wife Fumiko (Yui Natsukawa) in their small Tokyo home. Pensioner Shuzo spends most of his time reading the newspaper, playing golf and carousing with his elderly cronies at a local bar that’s run by a pretty hostess. Tomiko, meanwhile, makes an effort to expand her horizons by taking a writing class at the local senior center, where she encounters a variety of non-traditional ideas and opinions among her classmates.

Her dissatisfaction with her husband and their ossifying marriage is completely lost on Shuzo, who reacts with disbelief after once again forgetting Tomiko’s birthday when she claims that the only gift that she wants is a divorce. Shuzo tries to convince himself that she must be joking, but when she presents him with official papers to sign and word gets out to the rest of the family, a crisis erupts as everyone attempts to mediate a resolution. Concern also develops regarding the unmarried status of Koichi’s younger brother, Shuji (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a somewhat awkward composer and professional piano tuner still living at home well into his 30s.

After Tomiko refuses various entreaties to reconsider her request for a separation, Koichi reluctantly convenes a family meeting that only results in unleashing further recriminations among his relatives, as he attempts to hunker down in hopes that the storm will blow over. His sister, Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima), however, remains convinced that their father must be having an affair, probably with the bar owner, and hires a ridiculously inept private detective to investigate. Shuji’s surprise revelation that he’s planning to marry pretty young nurse Noriko (Yu Aoi), whom nobody has even met yet, provokes further turmoil, leading Shuzo to despair whether he can ever regain his coveted influence over his increasingly independent family members.

Yamada teams with frequent co-writer Emiko Hiramatsu to achieve a consistently engaging balance of humanism and comedy throughout the script, which fundamentally turns on Tomiko’s quest for self-affirmation. By keeping her family, and the audience, guessing about whether she’s bluffing or actually making a genuine bid for independence, Tomiko usurps Shuzo’s accustomed place as the arbiter of household affairs. Each of her relatives responds with a characteristic reaction, whether disbelief, concern, annoyance or sympathy, providing a variety of perspectives on contemporary family dynamics.  

Rascally old Shuzo is an ornery customer accustomed to getting his own way, either by force of will or dint of subterfuge. Film and TV vet Hashizume is spot-on in the role, hilariously playing Shuzo as an oblivious oldster with no concern for how his disregard for others’ feelings causes consternation and bruised egos. In response, Yoshiyuki adequately conveys that Tomiko is every part her husband’s equal, well-aware of his deeply buried affections, but fed up with his selfishness.

The supporting castmembers, almost all reprising their Tokyo Family roles, proficiently play Shuzo’s put-upon relatives and in-laws, with Nishimura and Natsukawa demonstrating particular skill as the responsible householders navigating the minefield of their relatives’ conflicting motivations and emotions. 

Yamada demonstrates his considerable directorial skill in a suitably domesticized mode as well, situating most scenes in the family home or Shuzo’s favorite cozy little bar. With setups confined to tight quarters, he relies primarily on fixed shots enlivened by deceptively casual framing; low, expressive camera angles; and carefully arranged blocking to convey enhanced resonance during key scenes.

As he begins production on What a Wonderful Family! II, one can only hope that Yamada still has a few more films left in his impressively productive career.   

Venue: Hawaii International Film Festival
Distributor: Shochiku
Production company: Shochiku
Cast: Isao Hashizume, Yui Natsukawa, Masahiko Nishimura, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Tomoko Nakajima, Yu Aoi, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Shozo Hayashiya
Director: Yoji Yamada
Screenwriters: Yoji Yamada, Emiko Hiramatsu
Producer: Hiroshi Fukasawa
Director of photography: Masashi Chikamori
Editor: Iwao Ishii
Music: Joe Hisaishi

Not rated, 108 minutes