“[An] endearing and heartwarming exploration of the complexity of family relations (…) that shows (…) that happiness is to be found in the very daily problems family life indisputably generates. We’re already hoping for another sequel.”
While Yōji Yamada might not ring the same way in the ear as the great powerhouses, e.g. Shohei Imamura, Kon Ichikawa, Akira Kurosawa, …etc., of Japanese cinematography, he should still be considered as a minor monument of Japanese cinema. He is, for instance, the director of the legendary and highly entertaining Otoko wa Tsurai yo comedy series (general note 1), which follows the adventures of Tora-san and his endless quests to win a woman’s heart. More recently, he directed the critically acclaimed trilogy of samurai movies, i.e. The Twilight Samurai (2002), The Hidden Blade (2004) and Love and Honor (2006).
21 years after his last Tora-san movie, Yōji Yamada finally returned to the comedy genre in 2016 with What a Wonderful Family! (general note 2). Following the success of this narrative, Yamada returns to introduce the audiences to another chapter in the lives of the Hirata family.
When Fumie (Yui Natsukawa) discovers some dents on the car of her father-in law Shuzo (Isao Hashizume), she and her husband Konosuke (Masahiko Nishimura), Shuzo’s oldest son, decide, for his and his cars safety, that he has to return his driver’s license. As asking Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), Shuzo’s wife, to relay the message isn’t an option, Konosuke proposes to ask Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima), his sister – “dad actually listens to her”, to talk to her father. But despite the concern of the other family members, Taizo (Shozo Hayashiya), Shigeko’s husband, Shuzo’s youngest son, Shota (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and his girlfriend Noriko (Yu Aoi), Shuzo remains reluctant to quit.
On the very day Shuzo’s wife has left home for a holiday to Scandinavia, he invites bar owner Kayo (Jun Fubuki), his lover, for lunch. He happens to meet Ginpei Maruta (Nenji Kobayashi), an old school friend, along the way and, at a later date, ends up spending time drinking alcohol with him at Kayo’s bar. Shuzo’s then decides to let hem stay at his house.
While the quest to make Shuzo give up his drivers licence is the main narrative thread, What a Wonderful Family! 2 is much more than that, approaching the aspect of family relations in all its diversity (Narra-note 1). Yōji Yamada leisurely takes his time to paint (often) familiar scenes of Japanese daily life (bathing, household chores, … etc.) and to explore the different sides of the family (e.g. Taizo and Shigeko’s quest for finding a piano for their daughter, Shota and Noriko’s conversations about taking Noriko’s mother in and becoming parents, … etc), turning this narrative into a sort of kaleidoscopic view on how a Japanese family can function.
It is in this respect that the main narrative thread serves as a means to playfully explore the differences, in authority for instance, between the different family members and between the different generations. The theme of authority is best illustrated by the question of who to use to convince the patriarch of the family to give up on his license (narra-note 2). But more importantly – and this is the central point of What a Wonderful Family! 2 – the narrative touches upon the fact that, as not everyone is given the privilege of having a family, joy and happiness is to be found in the very daily misery that family life eventually instigates.
While What a Wonderful Family! 2 boasts some really thoughtful compositions of characters in the narrative frame, its cinematography is a straight-forward standard affair, resorting almost solely to a concatenation of temporally long fixed shots, while throwing some shots with camera movement into the mix once in a while. The cinematography is nothing special and that is not necessarily a bad thing, as it provides the stage for the family-interactions and the comedy that result from these interactions.
The reason why the comedy in What a Wonderful Family! 2 works so well and why the narrative is so amusing overall has to be attributed to the on-screen chemistry between the actors and the subtlety each actor evinces in their facial expressions and their interactions. There is a lot of fun to be found in the recognizability of certain ways, often preconceived, in which the various husbands and wives interact with each other and the amusing conversations that the members of the family have. Additionally, the narrative also relies, for comedy, on the acting as such and the staging of surprises related to the movement of the body as such. The reliance on physical comedy and on the recognizability of various situations ensures that international audiences will laugh a lot as well, while giving them the opportunity to explore the inner workings and the cultural specifics of a Japanese family as well – not that their problems and concerns are that much different from other families around the world.
What a Wonderful Family! 2 proves to be a worthy sequel, equally amusing and, by times, funny as the first narrative was. It is an endearing and heartwarming exploration of the complexity of family relations, and also shows in a touching way the honest care of family-members for each other and, most importantly, that happiness is to be found in the very daily problems family life indisputably generates. We’re already hoping for another sequel.
General note 1: The literally translated title of What a Wonderful Family! is It’s Tough Being a Family, which is a reference to the general title of the Tora-san series: It’s tough being a man.
General note 2: For people who didn’t see the first narrative of What a Wonderful family! (2016), a short narrative introduction might be helpful: when Tomiko’s Hirata’s anniversary approaches, her husband Shuzo Hirata decides to ask his wife what she wants as a bithday present. Tomiko asks for a divorce, an announcement that plunges the entire family into chaos.
Narra-note 1: Even though the quest of the drivers licence is central to the story, it does not get a resolution in this movie.
Narra-note 2: Even if Shota underlines that it is but a drivers licence, Shuzo’s response reveals that his drivers license means so much more to him, it is a symbol for life, for being alive in society as such.