Family. Can’t live with them…so just run away.
Available online. Approximately 126 minutes.
Ginko had met Kazuo while they were studying pharmacy in Tokyo. They got married, opened up a pharmacy in the suburbs, and raised a daughter, Koharu. Unfortunately, Kazuo died when Koharu was still young, leaving only Ginko to raise Koharu, with maybe some help from Kazuo’s mother, Kinuo. Ginko’s younger brother, Tetsuro, came up from their hometown of Osaka to act as a father figure to Koharu, just as Ginko had acted as a mother figure to him when he was young. Tetsuro was a fun guy to be around and Koharu absolutely loved him…but loved him less and less as she grew older and he just did not change. At Kazuo’s 13th Memorial, Tetsuro got drunk and disorderly. After that, Tetsuro seemed to have disappeared from their lives.
Five years after the Memorial incident, Koharu is preparing to get married to a successful doctor from elsewhere named Yusuke. Ginko notes that they finally received an answer to the wedding invitation from Tetsuro, but Koharu points out that it was merely returned, as the recipient was not proven to be there. She had told her mother that there was no point in inviting him, and this just proves it.
Later that day, when Ginko is getting dinner ready, Kinuo secretly asks Koharu whether Tetsuro is coming to the wedding. She is relieved when Koharu says that he isn’t coming. Dinner is here and they toast this once in a lifetime event. Koharu asks her grandmother to get along with Ginko, since they will soon be the only ones in the house.
It is the wedding day in a fancy hotel and the string players are playing “Deutschland Uber Alles”…I guess because it is a pretty piece? Anyways, Koharu has just gotten her wedding dress on and Ginko’s older brother, Shohei, comes in to see his niece. Ginko thanks him for all that he has done for them over the years, but he says that it is nothing. Ginko tells Koharu to thank him as well, but he says that she should thank her mother instead, for taking care of him all by herself. He kind of gets pushy about it, being a stickler for propriety. Koharu thanks Ginko, everyone in the room tears up. In another movie, this might be towards the end.
Up the hotel stairs in a rather ratty-looking outfit comes Tetsuro. He cannot find the wedding, so he gets one of the hotel employees to find Ginko. The reception speeches are going on when Ginko and Shohei learn that their brother is waiting in the hall and wants to talk to Ginko. Shohei wants him thrown out, but Ginko refuses. They go to meet him and he is really chatty, going on and on about how difficult it was to find the hotel. Shohei has little patience for him, but admits that it is too late to just send him away. He will allow Tetsuro to see the rest of the ceremony as long as he doesn’t drink, saying that the groom is from a good family and has brought many important people with him. Tetsuro is saddened by his brother’s insults, but agrees to stay away from the alcohol. He is eventually brought in. Koharu gives a double-take from the front of the room when she notices Tetsuro sitting at her family’s table all the way at the back by the exit.
A waiter brings a glass of champagne for Tetsuro a few moments before the wedding toast, but he asks for some tea instead. Ginko says that one glass would be okay for the toast, but Tetsuro does not want to risk it. So he drinks his tea for the toast, but he eye’s his sister’s champaign. Later, when everyone is looking at the bride and groom cutting the cake, Tetsuro finishes off his sister’s glass…and then his brother’s glass.
At first, Tetsuro’s transgressions are limited to slurping his soup, horrifying both Kinuo and Shohei’s wife. When both of his siblings leave the table to bid farewell to a prominent doctor, however, he gets two glasses of whisky from a waiter. Ginko returns to the table and Tetsuro is at the front, making a speech…a very long speech. It might have been fine had he stuck to talking about how Kazuo had asked him to give Koharu her name, but that is only a small part of his rambling speech…that transitions into him reciting lines from a play. He flails at some guys who attempt to take the microphone away from him and knocks over a table during the final speech. I suppose that this would be par for the course at some weddings, but not this one. He humiliates his family, infuriates his brother, and leaves Koharu’s in-laws with bad feelings about what she may bring to their family. Shohei and Ginko have to apologize to Yusuke’s parents.
That night, back at Ginko’s house, Shohei tells Ginko that he is cutting his ties with Tetsuro and says that she should too. Tetsuro is passed out on the floor nearby. Shohei’s wife tries to talk him down, but Shohei says that Ginko had spoiled him for too long, raising him to be a fool. He leaves, saying that Tetsuro can die in a ditch, but is barred from the family tomb. Shohei’s wife and daughter politely leave as well. Spoiler alert: these three characters do not show up in the movie again.
The next morning, Tetsuro wakes up and asks if he was bad at the wedding reception. When Ginko reminds him that he had promised to avoid alcohol, he blames his hand for taking the drinks. He has no memory of what he did, so Ginko tells him that he had ruined his niece’s wedding and scolds him for acting like a child. He responds by sniffling and hitting his head on the furniture. Ginko calms down and asks him what he does for work besides being a struggling actor. Apparently, he also makes fried octopus dumplings; he complains that it is hard, but Ginko is glad that he is working hard. She offers to wash his ratty outfit (he actually borrowed it from an actor friend) while he goes to lose the rest of his money at a pachinko parlour and wander around the town for a while. Later on, when he returns, he lets slip that he sort of has a girlfriend. Ginko is really happy to hear this, but Tetsuro does not want to talk about it. He laughs at the notion that he could get married and have kids, which upsets Ginko greatly. They make up the next morning before he leaves, with Ginko giving him train fare money and telling him to really make an effort to do well in the dumpling business.
There is a bit of a time skip and Koharu is back. When Ginko asks why she has returned, she initially gives reasons that make it seem that Yusuke is stingy regarding her financial needs, but the real reason is that he is never around and seems like a stranger to her. It is implied earlier on that the two of them were brought together by a matchmaker, so they did not really know each other that well beforehand and being married did not help bridge the gap.
One day, Akira the carpenter stops by to fix one of the doors. He mistakes Koharu’s return to mean that she is pregnant, but she most likely sets him straight once she starts ever-so mildly flirting with him. Meanwhile, Ginko is meeting with Yusuke, trying to find out his side of the story. Basically, his story is that he is busy all of the time and has no understanding of the concept of just sitting down to “talk” with Koharu. He bitterly jokes that he would understand if Koharu were upset that he was cheating on her, but that he has no time to do that either. It is not long after that that Koharu divorces him and starts dating Akira.
After another time-jump, a somewhat absent-minded woman comes to visit Ginko. She is Hitomi, Tetsuro’s girlfriend…or she was; she has not seen him for three months. Apparently, he had convinced her to lend him $30,000, which was pretty much all of her life savings. It is likely that he had gambled it all away. Ginko is dubious about the amount, but the IOU is proof enough. Hitomi is ashamed for even coming to ask for anything, and asks for only maybe a third of the money, but Ginko gets the full $30,000 from the bank, money that she had been saving up for the pharmacy. She makes Hitomi sign a receipt for the amount, but then apologizes for her brother’s actions. Ginko…who had been so happy when she had learned that Tetsuro had a girlfriend, is supportive when said girlfriend says that she is thinking of breaking up with him. And when Tetsuro eventually does stop by to visit, Ginko…can barely contain her fury.
Perhaps you have seen a movie like this before. A family or a group of friends has a black sheep who may be fun to have around, but causes a whole lot of trouble. Eventually, it becomes too much and the family kicks out the black sheep, but eventually realizes the emotional value that the black sheep had brought. There is that conflict between being a free spirit and being proper.
I suppose that you could sort of predict how this movie will end even though I have summarized only half of it. On the other hand, it would do a disservice to the movie to simply reduce it to that kind of story, as there are a few other things going on. In a sense, it is about family identities, duties, and obligations. The main focus of this story is, of course, Ginko and Tetsuro. Even when he is not around, Tetsuro casts a shadow of his sister’s life. She had raised him when he was young and he lived with her and Koharu after her husband died. It is implied, though, that she felt obligated to keep him around, even as he became more and more of a liability. It is only after he does something really bad, such as getting drunk at her husband’s memorial or absconding with his girlfriend’s savings that she really scolds him. He responds by disappearing for years on end, but she always leaves out an olive branch.
Why would Ginko allow her brother to take advantage of her generosity for decades? One explanation is the notion of self-sacrifice, something that is supposedly a virtue in Japanese women; it is a cousin to the virtue of being long-suffering. Not only does she take care of her daughter on her own as well as her hilariously passive-aggressive and mildly senile mother-in law, but she also takes care of her younger brother and sticks up for him. That is how she is and she should be lauded for fulfilling her womanly obligations. And something about Confucianism and all of that. This may cast the movie in a somewhat conservative light, applauding the placing of burdens upon Ginko while absolving Tetsuro of responsibilities, but it is not quite that simple either.
If Ginko’s self-sacrifice was meant to be an example for all, then Koharu should have been expected to stay with her husband. Whatever personal needs and desires that she had should have been suppressed in order to be useful. Instead, she was treated as needy and burdensome. When she does return to her mother, she is ashamed at her failure. She had abandoned her new family to retreat to the one that she was meant to leave. She failed as a wife, as adult, and as a woman. At the same time, it appears as if the community can look past what she did and be glad that she is back. She eventually does find happiness back home with people who do appreciate her. This suggests that the notion of self-sacrifice, while laudable, cannot be an overarching trait for everyone, especially if the cause (staying with Yusuke and his family) is not worth the sacrifice. It also suggests that social norms are not as rigid and inflexible as they might seem. Sure, Ginko may be close to the ideal traditional Japanese woman, but not every woman can be like her. And they neither have to be nor should they be expected to be.
For all of the fun times that Tetsuro provides, he is awful when it is time to get serious. He never understands when he has done anything wrong unless Ginko scolds him harshly. And even when he is remorseful over something that he did, he wallows in self-hatred instead of doing anything to change. He is also awful when it comes to taking responsibility; his giving Koharu her name seems to be the only time that he was given responsibility over anything major and he still cherishes it over two decades later. At the same time, it was Kazuo who had asked him to name his daughter in the first place, which means that he saw something in his brother-in-law, or at least realized how important something like that would mean to him. It gave him a sense of pride and familial belonging. He holds onto it, like a child would at accomplishing something for the first time. For he is like a child. And not the type of manchild who sends his straitlaced buddies on a hilarious misadventures, but the exasperating type. There is a hint that he may have some sort of mental disorder, but it is not explored, maybe because none of the characters who could really do anything about it really want to acknowledge the possibility. They want him to grow up; they need him to mature. But, instead, they deal with the near-certainty that he never will; some better than others. So, if he cannot take care of himself, let alone others, then what is to be done with him?
And what of other men in the movie? How do they deal with responsibility? While it was stated that the trio’s mother had been sick when Tetsuro was a child, it is never stated what their father was like. Ginko may have spoiled Tetsuro, but who had taught him how to be a man? Well, judging by his ability to whine and speak as a child, perhaps no one. Certainly not his older brother. Shohei seems to be obsessed with propriety for the sake of propriety and not necessarily what is right. It is implied, though not confirmed, that he had a big hand in getting Koharu engaged and putting together the wedding. While Ginko may be part of the family, Shohei plays his part, doing all that is necessary, but not much else. He cares about what is proper, not what is right. When he cuts off Tetsuro from the family, he effectively disappears from the film. Granted, Koharu also disappears at the time, but she comes back. It could be that Shohei had visited Koharu from time to time when she was with her husband, but had refused to see Ginko after she did not agree to cut off their brother. Whatever the case may be, he is gone from the movie. And unlike with other characters, he is not even mentioned again.
The damage that Tetsuro had caused during the wedding may have affected how Koharu’s new family treated her and may have doomed the marriage anyways, but it does not excuse how her husband had treated her. Yusuke represents the Japanese man as a workaholic, always busy, never having time to do anything, never making time to do anything with his wife or for his wife. Again, it is implied that Koharu was meant to be a housewife, and thus all of her finances are wrapped up in his work. Thus, she is unable to pay for things that she needs; he blames her for not having settled these matters before they got married, when she was working with her mother at the pharmacy. He is totally callous and his family seems to have accepted that, maybe they even encouraged him. So Koharu was made miserable, unable to do anything or be anything. Or anyone.
Akira is shown to be probably the best of all worlds. His introduction to the movie has him going above and beyond what he was assigned to do, pointing out to Koharu the various ways in which previous carpenters most likely cut corners to allow for the problem with the door. While he is dedicated to his profession, it does not tie him down. He goes on dates with Koharu and most likely takes time off of work to help her out during one pretty important scene. He knows about what is proper, but he also discards what is proper when it gets in the way of what is right. He is warm and close while her husband is cold and distant. One could say that he is the perfect man. So why didn’t she marry him in the first place?
This brings us to another subject that the movie touches upon: class. It is no mistake to have Ginko be from Osaka. Osaka could be considered to be the low-class hick city of Japan. That is not entirely accurate a description, but work with me here. While Tetsuro still calls Osaka his home, Ginko has long since left the place for the high class capital…well, sort of. It is unclear whether Shohei had stayed in Osaka, but I am guessing that he did not. I would assume that their family had a working class background, but all tried to escape. Shohei tries to make it into high society. Ginko tries to make it in middle-class society with the hope that maybe her child can move upwards. Tetsuro almost gives up on the class structure completely, preferring to be a starving artist and taking a job making octopus dumplings to perhaps feed his addictions to alcohol and gambling. Akira may not be as low as Tetsuro has become on the totem pole, but he is definitely not where Ginko has been trying to be.
Koharu is meant to marry a doctor and become (I assume) a housewife. It was probably not even a matter of debate until it became real…as real as her family members being seated all the way in the back of the room by the exit at her wedding. It is stated several times that she had married into a good family with many important connections in the medical industry, so her leaving and later getting divorced is seen as a major step back down. Then again, perhaps Ginko and Shohei never really saw this “good family” as people, and when Ginko saw what her son-in-law really was like as a person, she decided that this letting her daughter take that step down was worth it. She may be self-sacrificing, but she will not sacrifice her daughter’s happiness. Yes, this may be a bit hackneyed on paper, but I still think that the movie handles it well.
The Tokyo suburbs where Koharu grows up seems to be quite middle class, though somewhat mixed. There is Akira, of course, but there is also a pair of middle-aged gentlemen who come to the pharmacy and, somehow, take up more screen-time than one would expect. The running gag is that they had hoped that there would be a man in the community whom Koharu could have married. One of them asks about the other one’s son, and the reply is that the boy is too lowly, working in a bicycle repair shop. Of course, this turns out not to have been an impediment; the real problem is that the boy seems coarse and not the brightest bulb. It is unclear how much education Akira had received, but he seems to definitely know his stuff.
I suppose that I could go on about this film, but I should probably stop now. I will just say that I highly recommend it.
WTF ASIA 58: Butterfly (Hong Kong: 2004, approx. 129 minutes)
WTF ASIA 59: Memories of Murder (South Korea: 2003, approx. 131 minutes)