A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic (2019) review [Japannual 2019]

Introduction

Kenji Katagiri is back with a new cinematographical narrative. This time, he brings the largely autobiographic webcomic “You to Bakemono ni Naru Chichi ga Tsurai” by Mariko Kikuchi to the silver screen.

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Review

Since her childhood, Saki (Honoka Matsumoto) and her sister Fumi (Yui Imaizumi) has known her father Toshifumi (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) to be drunk. While he often got drunk home after work, he also would get drunk at home while playing Mahjong with his buddies.

Even though her husband’s behaviour is problematic, Saeko (Rie Tomosaka), a devote follower of the Church of the Holy light, obediently supports him. But, one day, having suffered for so long, Saki’s mother decides to hang herself.

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A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic has a pleasing and effective emotional evolution. While the narrative starts off lighthearted – highlighting the fun Saki and Fumi have with their drunken father, the emotional tone becomes more serious as the narrative progresses, ultimately culminating in a moving and touching finale. The shift in tone translates Saki’s growing consciousness of the problematic impact of her father’s alcoholism on the functioning of the family as well as on her coming-into-being as subject. The main purpose of the narrative is to show how a disrupted familial situation, a situation disrupted by alcoholism, can disrupt the subjectivity of a subject, i.e. Saki, and how difficult it is to escape the subjective burden that such situation can impose on said subject.

The dysfunctional nature of Saki’s familial situation is, first and foremost, underlined by revealing her father as failing as father. In playing with him – as if he was a toy, young Saki highlights the fact that he, in no way, can realize his position as father, his position of regulator. That Toshi fails in realizing a position as father, even when sober, is also beautifully underlined in the Mahjong scene. As Toshi’s friends enter the house, they start giving orders. The children need to give up the table and the cushions they were sitting on and Saeko, Saki’s mother, up until then reciting religious texts out loud, is ordered to bring them whiskey and ice.

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In other words, within the family there is no-one – nor the father, nor the mother – able to introduce limits. The father, for his part, loses himself in the enjoyment of alcohol, while the mother, ever interacting with the truths of her religion, remains (in most cases) a passive (and obedient) presence (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2). One could even say that the mother, in her silent obedience, supports the disruption that his alcoholism causes. Nevertheless, the position of Saeko changes over time. When Saki is seventeen, Saeko’s emotional state has become more unstable (more anger/more sadness) and her behavior more impulsive. Both aspects sensibly evoke Saeko’s aggressive tendency towards this man she calls her husband. That this aggressive impulse eventually transform into a self-destruction act should not surprise anyone (Narra-note 3).

The reason for Toshi’s failure as father is the same reason why he loses himself in alcohol: his failure to say ‘no’ to others, his failure to manifest himself as subject or realize his desire as father. This failure to say ‘no’ to his drinking buddies nevertheless leads him – beyond his subjective intention – to say ‘no’ to his children, e.g. when his hangover makes him break his promise to take his kids to the pool (Narra-note 4). His drinking turns the life of his children in a concatenation of (predictable) disappointments.

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Beyond offering a subjective account of Saki’s experiences, A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic also functions as a social critique. This critique is to be found in the tension between Saki’s desire to have a father and the adults that try to justify Toshi’s problematic drinking behaviour. When the various drinking-buddies try to explain his (ab)use of alcohol – e.g. because of work-stress or because of loneliness, they fail to see that are (partially) responsible for the problematic situation Saki and her sister had to endure (Narra-note 5). By failing to encounter Toshi at the level of his subjective position, his so-called friends fail to see his problem with saying ‘no’. Their focus on having pleasure leads them to pressure him on a path that disrupts the social bonds he has. One could contend that Toshi socializes with alcohol, but that would ignore the superficiality of the those bonds. The bonds Toshi has are, first and foremost, mediated by alcoholic pleasure and not by a genuine interest in each other.

Even though moments of fixity are present in the framing of Kenji Katagiri‘s narrative, it is cinematographical movement – i.e. floating spatial camera movement as well as subtle following movement – that dictates the cinematographical flow of A Life Turned Upside Down. While the cinematographical composition might be ordinary for the most part, two fine cinematographical touches show that Katagiri knows how to use the image in a thoughtful and effective way.

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The first element concerns the use of fixity to emphasize emotion expressions (Cine-note 1). One such emotional emphasis – a very powerful one, is found at the very beginning of the narrative. By fixating on Saki‘s facial expression, the spectator is given the opportunity to register the subtle changes of her facial features – up until the tears start rolling – and come to sense the complicated nature of her feelings (Narra-note 6). The second element is the sudden use of a trembling shot in order to highlight Saki’s emotional state.

If it was not evident by the cinematographical emphasis on Saki – i.e. the fixed shot mentioned above, the narrating voice, the adult voice of Saki, establishes her firmly as the (subjective) point from which the story is told (cine-note 2). One could even read the narrative as a concatenation of memories. As the narrating voice establishes the present – the point from where our main character looks back on her familial history, the subsequent chronological scenes of the past become nothing other than her most vivid memories concerning her life with her father (Structure-note 1). The fact that there are scenes in the narrative where Saki is not present – scenes that focus on the mother and/or the father as such, does not detract from the fact that it is solely Saki’s subjectivity that is at stake.

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Another element worth mentioning is Katagiri’s choice to use text-balloons to evoke Saki’s inner thoughts. Besides allowing us an insight in the doubts and questions she struggles with, the use these text-balloons emphasizes the fact that many things we struggle with are left unsaid.

Colour is also used in a thoughtful way. In accordance with the tonal shift of the narrative – from lighthearted to more serious, the warm orangey overlay that marks the framing of Saki’s childhood becomes less pronounced (Music note 1). There are also moments in the narrative where the colour-scheme is greenish. While this colour-scheme is generally used to frame night-time-sequences, the use of this colour-scheme (in non-night-time scenes) successfully supports the evocation of Saki’s subjective struggle.

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A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic is a moving narrative about the impact alcoholism can have on one’s coming-into-being as subject as well as a subtle societal commentary on the way the consumption of alcohol in Japan is viewed. Whereas Katagiri in his previous narrative forgot to give Miko’s subjective change the emotional power it needed, Katagiri’s perfectly executed tonal shift turns Saki’s subjective journey into a truly touching experience.

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Notes

Narra-note 1: At a certain moment in the narrative, the mother does formulate a certain limit towards the father: “If you don’t say I love you once in a while, I’ll leave you. Note that the limit she lightheartedly introduces does not concerns his alcohol or his failure as father.

One could nevertheless presume that his alcohol-problem has problematized his sexual relationship with Saeko. As alcohol has become his object of pleasure, he has difficulty to situate the object of his desire in Saeko.

Narra-note 2: It is therefore not unsurprising that Saki, after her mother committed suicide, takes matters in her own hands. Blaming her father’s problematic alcohol consumption for her mother’s dead, she tries to limit her father’s behaviour by emptying every bottle of spirits and every can of beer in the house.

Narra-note 3: One could read Saeko’s suicide as the most powerful and most radical ‘no’ she could express. Nevertheless, this radical ‘No’ is a radical act and not an uttered ‘No’ that remains within the symbolic system.     

Narra-note 4: On another level, Toshi fails to listen to the subjective position of his children, to what is on their minds. While this is already subtly sensible in the scene where Saki is eight, his indifference becomes truly evident when she’s seventeen.

Narra- note 5: Saki eventually gets into a relationship with an aspiring writer, Satoshi Nakamura (Shogo Hama) .

While he seems better than her father – yes, he compared with the image of her father as lover, it doesn’t take long for his abusive tendencies (and his alcoholic consumption) to come to the fore.

Nevertheless, the love that she receives from him, the love that enables her to cope with her loneliness, keeps her longer in the relationship that is healthy for her.

Narra-note 6: The complicated nature of her feelings are born from the split between the hate she feels for the monster he was and the love she still has for him. Because of this split, she is keeps questioning her position in relation to him. Did I treat him too harshly? Do I need to assume some guilt too?

Cine-note 1: Note that moments of fixity are often used in scenes taking place inside the house.

Cine-note 2: Near the end of the narrative, there is one instance where a trembling moving shot is used. These shot sensibly emphasizes Saki’s heightens emotions.

Structure-note 1: The narrative is structured according to Saki’s age. First, we see scenes from when Saki was 8 years old, from when she was 17, from when she’s 24 and finally from when she’s thirty.

Music-Note 1: Please note that the music follows a similar evolution. The lighthearted music of Saki’s childhood subtle making place for more somber music. This musical shift empowers the framing of Saki’s subjective shift.

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