To celebrate a year of this series, I…post another article about movie that no one else has seen. A comedy about family, outsiders, and a metaphorical parakeet.
Natsuki lives in a suburban Tokyo neighborhood with her older husband Mikio, her stepdaughter Eriko, and sister-in-law Seiko. They have been staying in the apartment that Mikio and Seiko had lived in as children over the printing store that their late father had built. Mikio now runs the store while Natsuki oversees the finances. Seiko…who had returned after getting divorced…does nothing.
When returning from the two-year memorial for the previously-mentioned father, the family encounters a neighbor who is trying to get the community to sign a petition to kick out the homeless people from a nearby park and get more people to take part in the neighborhood watch in response to crime, particularly crime by foreigners. None of them are particularly interested, but they are polite to the neighbor, and Seiko decides that participating would give her something to do during the day.
The family parrot has gone missing and they printed out missing notices for it…even though the photograph that they used does not quite look correct. Seiko and Eriko go out to put up flyers. A man named Hanataro finds one of the flyers and brings it back to the printing shop. He says that he saw the parakeet by the park. Seiko and Eriko, who had returned home at the time, go out to look for the parakeet. Hanataro, however, stays at the shop, walking around and then just sitting down on the step between the store and the apartment. He notices that Eriko had called Natsuki teacher, and Natsuki explains that she had been teaching Eriko elementary English.
Mikio comes in and Hanataro has to remind him that he is the son of someone whom Mikio’s father knew. Mikio suddenly remembers. Yes, Kagawa Hanataro, whose father helped his father open the store. Natsuki, who had been warily polite up to that point, displays much more open deference and gratefulness. After failing to acknowledge Natsuki as Mikio’s wife, Hanataro says that he is impressed that they can run this place on their own. In comparison, he had not done much in the eight years since he had last seen Mikio and is currently unemployed. It is at that moment that the store employee, Yamaguchi, falls down.
Hanataro returns the next day to help out Yamaguchi with the machines. Apparently, he had worked with these things before. Mikio notes to Natsuki that Yamaguchi had seemed pretty worn out. As Natsuki works on the finances and Yamaguchi goes to do…something, Hanataro and Mikio talk under the sounds of the printing machines. Hanataro notes that Natsuki is so pretty and so much younger than Mikio. What happened to Mikio’s other wife? Mikio says that she got sick. And…yep. She got sick. Through conversation, Hanataro finds out that the apartment has vacant room. By night, he has moved in.
Seiko is a little unhappy Mikio invited Hanataro to stay, since Natsuki already has her old room, but Mikio says that he had no idea that she would return home after two years. Seiko asks Natsuki to teach her English because she wants to go abroad, which makes Mikio laugh. Meanwhile Yamaguchi has to go to the hospital, so Hanataro becomes the primary employee as well as a tenant.
One day, the family encounters Mikio’s ex-wife, Akie, outside market by surprise. She has little baby. Everyone is cordial, though Eriko does not seem particularly fond of birth-mother. Mikio says Eriko should go with Akie for dinner. So she does. And the conversation is done.
Mikio and Natsuki return home to see a White woman clad only in a shower towel. Who is that? Natsuki thinks she might be a prostitute. Hanataro comes home and says that she is his wife, Annabelle. Hanataro had never told them about her, but he says that they never asked if he was married. Seiko is, once again, unhappy.
Annabelle’s Japanese is…o…kay? Natsuki has to converse with her in English. Annabelle says that she is from Brazil and has been in Japan for five years, working as a dance instructor. Hanataro’s English is not good. Apparently, they do not talk much. While Mikio goes to greet Eriko when she returns from dinner with Akie, Kagawa tells Natsuki that the marriage is fake, only to take it back as a joke. Natsuki does not know what to think.
Real marriage or sham, Hanataro and Annabelle have sex that night…with no concern as to whether they keep their hosts awake. Mikio tries to use their both being awake to start a conversation with Natsuki, saying that Akie said that she was happy that Mikio was with Natsuki, that he would not be alone. Natsuki does not know what to think about that…and she just wants quiet. Mikio even tries to…initiate sex as well, but Natsuki is really not having that. She tells him to stop and maybe Annabelle and Kagawa hear as well, because they stop…or maybe they finished.
Natsuki is teaching Eriko English when someone comes in to tell her that a piece of laundry has fallen. By the time Natsuki returns from picking it up, Annabelle is teaching Eriko English. Natsuki thanks Annabelle for briefly taking over, but seems less thankful when Annabelle corrects Natsuki’s pronunciation and then just casually takes over again.
Annabelle starts hanging up her own clothes to dry on the hangers that Natsuki has just finished using. She asks Natsuki how Eriko’s mother died, but Natsuki doesn’t understand. Hanataro comes and asks in Japanese. Natsuki says that she just ran away and Hanataro explains it to Annabelle in English. Why did she run away? Well, anyways…Natsuki comments that he does speak English and all he can say is that it seems that he can speak it better than Natsuki. Natsuki insists that she is not a teacher, merely that she was teaching Eriko enough for a kid, but Hanataro insists on making passive-aggressive comments about her English, even saying that Seiko will eventually surpass her.
Later Hanataro tells Mikio he has to go do something and asks for an advance…so Mikio gives him a week off, to Natsuki’s unhappiness. Natsuki tells Mikio that she doesn’t like him or Annabelle. She wishes Hanataro would quit or at least move out. Mikio thinks things are fine, but Natsuki has suspicions. Suspicions of what, though?
While the story is ostensibly about the family and features Mikio as much as or even more than it features Natsuki, I do feel like she is the emotional core of the film. She knows as much as we do about Hanataro at any given moment, maybe even less. Sometimes, the movie is about to show him privately requesting Mikio for something and then it immediately cuts to Mikio explaining the situation to a flummoxed Natsuki, leaving open the distinct possibility that Mikio is lying to make up for having let Hanataro just walk all over him. The film often focuses on her reactions to situations and circumstances, especially when no one else is looking at her.
Mikio and Eriko seem to like Natsuki well enough, but there is always the sense that she does not quite fit. Everyone seems to comment on her being way out of Mikio’s league, which is usually supposed to be meant to be a compliment, but is definitely not felt as one here. Additionally, Eriko never acknowledges her as her mother or even her stepmother, calling her teacher every time. This, on top of being out of Mikio’s league, is what initially allows Hanataro to “accidentally” fail to realize that she is Mikio’s wife. And, of course, once Annabelle so casually usurps her position as teacher, what becomes of Natsuki’s role in the family? Is she merely just the accountant and Mikio’s temporary companion? What has happened in her life to bring her here and keep her here? There are potential answers in the second half of the story, but once they are revealed, what then?
With a little tweaking, this movie could have been a straight drama about a family harassed by a barely-invited guest who increasingly fancies himself as head of the household and pushes the family’s already fragile bonds to the brink of collapse. Or a horror movie like that thing with Dennis Quaid. As it is, though, it is a rather low-key comedy that gently pokes fun at themes that are simultaneously universal and uniquely Japanese. There is the issue of cramped spaces, which seems relegated only to the store area of the apartment until the movie progresses and the issue starts to spread throughout. Seiko was never meant to return permanently after getting married, but divorce has brought her back. Once Hanataro and then Annabelle show up, their mere presence makes things more difficult.
There is the issue of xenophobia, which I am not sure how much the movie critiques and how much it indulges. While we do not witness much of it, Annabelle’s mere presence creates a stir in the neighborhood…though some of it may have been justified due to her weird behavior. She claims to be from Brazil, but there is little evidence to back that up. No one mentions speaking Portuguese or consulting any nearby community of Brazilian Japanese. The actor playing her was born in Washington DC, but has lived in various countries, none of which were Brazil. The neighborhood watch is seen as mostly an ineffective annoyance, which Seiko joins only out of boredom. And this is contrasted with her hazy dreams of studying in some foreign country. Natsuki is the most reluctant to take part. How can she be part of a group meant to keep out others when she herself feels like a misfit? A replacement who could herself be replaced? It may not be relevant to the movie itself, but the actor is ethnically Korean, and Korean-Japanese in general have not necessarily been all that well-treated in Japan. That may inform her portrayal of the character, even if it does not actually have directly had anything to do with the character. In any case, the issue of outsider and insider is turned on its head as even the family unit is on shaky ground.
There is also the one-two punch of enduring difficulties and remaining polite. Even before Hanataro arrives like a force of nature, things are not completely peachy keen in the household. Still, they do not air their dirty laundry and try to avoid being bothersome. Natsuki and Seiko are nice to each other, but they sometimes air grievances to Mikio. This goes doubly when Hanataro stops in. He is…sometimes nice and helpful, but gets less and less so as his hold on the family increases. He is more likely to be blunt, dismissive, inconsiderate, passive aggressive, pushy, and rude. He acts not so much as a guest, but as the master of the household. And the family just has to absorb it. After all, he is helping with the printing and his…uh…father…helped out years ago. So they endure, and he keeps pushing the boundaries. Natsuki complains to Mikio, who shuts her down. Seiko sometimes complains openly, but only after the issue is already irreversible. And when the pesky neighbors snoop around to find out what is going on? They just say that everything is fine.
WTF ASIA 54: In The Mood For Love (Hong Kong: 2000, approx. 98 minutes)
WTF ASIA 55: The Fake (South Korea: 2013, approx. 101 minutes)