Director Yuki Tanada’s understated dramedy examines the life of a woman struggling at the fringes of Japanese society in a life far beneath her potential.
My Dad and Mr. Ito (2016)
Directed by Yuki Tanada
Screenplay by Hisako Kurosawa, based on the novel by Hinako Nakazawa
Aya and her live-in partner Ito-san —20 years her senior—live a quiet, contented life in Tokyo, supporting themselves with go-nowhere part-time jobs. Their world is turned upside down by the unexpected arrival of her cantankerous widowed father, suitcase in hand.
“One of Japan’s finest women directors turns her empathetic gaze to a fractured family in a Japan in decline.”
Many Westerners still cling to the stereotype of the Japanese woman as a weak and subservient figure. In all likelihood, these people do not actually know a Japanese woman in any meaningful way and are informed by the images we see in media often reflecting the most superficial aspects of Japanese-style ritual courtesy. And surely they have never experienced one of Yuki Tanada’s heroines.
In her latest film, My Dad and Mr. Ito, director Yuki Tanada tackles the complex topic of one woman’s struggle at the fringes of Japanese society as she finds herself living a life far beneath her potential. As in her previous films, including Million Yen Girl, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky and Mourning Recipe, Tanada’s new film is built around an impressively written and acted lead female performance.
Aya is 34. She is bright and capable but hobbled by an overarching passivity that robs her of control over her world. Life is something that happens to Aya, and among those things that happen to her is her 54-year-old partner, Mr. Ito, with whom she shares a humble co-existence in a cramped Tokyo apartment. Both work dead-end part-time jobs: Aya in a bookstore and Ito-san in a school cafeteria. Their small, contented life together is turned upside down when her elderly widowed father suddenly appears at the door having just been kicked out of his son’s home. He brings with him a mysterious box which he guards obsessively.
This setup would seem to lend itself to farce or maybe even melodrama, but Tanada, adapting the novel Otou-san to Itou-san by Hinako Nakazawa, gives us much more. Her film is an unsentimental, clear-eyed, seriocomic look at life in a Japan in decline: a dwindling employment market, a fragile economy and a looming avalanche of seniors in need of care without the infrastructure or societal will to support it.
Tanada stays tightly focused on the three leads and their performances are uniformly superb. Juri Ueno shines as the classic Tanada heroine: vulnerable and numbed by the randomness of her life but with underpinnings of steely tenacity. Any number of actors could have mailed in a two-dimensional oyaji (“old man”) performance in the role of Aya’s cantankerous father but Tatsuya Fuji (In the Realm of the Senses) imbues the character with a frustrated desperation, allowing glimpses of a once proud educator now being systematically stripped of his dignity. The real revelation is Mr. Ito as played by the ubiquitous Lily Franky (Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After the Storm, Our Little Sister and Like Father, Like Son, to name a few). His Ito-san is wise, em- pathetic and blissfully directionless with hints of a possibly unsavoury past. He seems to understand both Aya and her Otou-san, buffering and gently guiding the fragile and potentially explosive relationship between father and daughter.
My Dad and Mr. Ito is an intimate and quietly moving film; Tanada’s unobtrusive and perceptive direction enlivens a gentle, unpredictable story arc shot through with small epiphanies and veiled emotion.
Aya and her Otou-san are good people who need and deserve an Ito-san in their life. We all do. Audiences will be well served by spending two hours in their company.
The film will have its North American debut as part of the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, screening November 10 at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. For more info go to www.reelasian.com.