Many people, when thinking of Japan, will immediately think of its rich cuisine. This prominence of Japanese cuisine in the mind of many, in fact, reveals the very importance food plays within Japanese society. It is therefore not surprising to see Japanese films that have food, directly or indirectly, as its main theme. One of the latest films to do so is Atsushi Kaneshige’s 461 Days of Bento, an adaptation of Toshimi Watanabe’s autobiographical essay “461 Ko no Bento wa, Oyaji to Musuko no Otoko no Yakusoku”.
After years of marital unhappiness, musician Kazuki (Yoshihiko Inohara) finally decides to divorce his wife, Shuko (Emi Kurara). Yet, with his wife moving out, he suddenly finds himself living alone with his somewhat estranged son, Kouki (Shunsuke Michieda), who is studying for his upcoming high-school entrance exams. Yet, as Kazuki is often on tour with his bandmembers Eita (Ichiro Yatsui) and Toshiya (Kreva), Kouki often spends time at the café Ruby On where his mother works.
One day, Kouki receives another rejection from a high school. Yet, rather than giving up, his failure prompts him to take his desire to enter high school more seriously and try again next year. A year later, Kouki passes the test for Ryotoku high school. Over dinner at a local Izakaya, his father suddenly asks him what he prefers, lunch from a convenience store of his father’s boxed lunch. Kouki answers somewhat casually that he prefers his father’s bento. Kazuki agrees to make his lunch, yet only on the condition that his son promises not to miss any day at school.
461 Days of Bento explores, in simple words, the positive impact that the act of making and sharing food can have on relationships. This impact – as is implied by the title – is most clearly investigated within the relationship between father and son. It does not take long for the spectator to notice the presence of a certain emotional distance between Kazuki and Kouki. This relational distance is signaled by a lack of intersubjective conversation. While they exchange signifiers with each other, their conversations, which are riddled with simple signifiers of basic politeness and chitter-chatter, are short and unable to support the appearance of a sudden glimpse of subjectivity.
The cause of this conversational infertility is nothing other than the father’s carefree position. The spectator quickly senses that the father’s well-intentioned desire to see Kouki grow up being free to do what he likes has turned him into symbolically impotent father that not only refuses to show genuine interest in his son’s life but also rejects to become involved in any way in his son’s struggle. This impotence is painfully illustrated by his impartial response – souka (I see) – to his son’s subjective declaration of his desire and the way he deals with subtle invitations by his son to meet the subject that carries the signifier ‘father’.
What enables Kazuki to change his father position? It is, in short, his promise of making bento every day that gradually changes his position as father. But let us immediately underline that his change is not directly caused by making bento for his son – the act of making bento does not directly alter the nature of their interactions, but by how his bento-making and his posting on social media allows the others (i.e. his band-members and his new love-interest) to subtly question his functioning as father. It is this questioning that invites Kazuki to performs other acts (e.g. invite Kouki to one of his concerts so that he does not simply game away his summer holiday at home) that enable him to attain a different kind of presence that does not make it easier for Kouki to address him as subject – and ask him, for example, about the cause of the divorce, but also permits Kazuki to subtly show some interest in his son’s subjective position.
Yet, Kazuki’s changed presence does not lead to true inter-subjective exchanges and does not allow Kouki to feel that his father truly cares for his subject – he still calls his father ‘ano hito’ (that man). Despite becoming more present, Kazuki still remains deaf and blind to the signs of his son’s suffering. Can Kazuki become conscious of the fact that merely being present is often not enough as a father? If so, what will allow him to understand that he sometimes needs to actively force the appearance of his son’s subjectivity in their interactions? The conflicts that arise between them or a sudden but rude confrontation with his continued fatherly impotence (Narra-note 1 (spoiler))?
It is important to underline that the element of home-made bento food also plays a role in changing his solitary position at his high school (Narra-note 2). His bento food, in fact, becomes an artifice for Kouki to establish friendships (e.g. with Akio (Jiei Wakabayashi) and Hiromi (Nana Mori)). His father’s food allows him to overcome the distance that his age installed between him and his fellow students. Can Kouki come to understand that his father’s perseverance in preparing his bento is his way of showing his loves for his son?
The composition of 461 Days of Bento is straightforward – offering a simple blend of static and dynamic shots. While Kaneshige gives his narrative an engaging and pleasant pace, he does so without indulging in any kind of compositional extravagance – be it at the level of shot or at the level of scenes. In the case of 461 Days of Bento, such restraint impacts the narrative negatively. A bit more compositional spice would have given Kaneshige’s filmic dish a more emotional bite. The lack of a more profound emotionality is not only function of the bland composition, but also due to the performance of Shunsuke Michieda. While his performance is far from bad, certain moments feel to acted and fail to infuse the genuine emotion necessary to elevate the emotional palette.
461 Days of Bento: A Promise Between Father and Son is a heartwarming narrative that does not only affirm that food is what brings people together, but also that the very act of preparing food, in many cases, functions as an expression of love. Yet, while Atsushi Kaneshige succeeds in delivering a narrative that is both heartwarming and hunger-inducing, his compositional conservatism, and certain bland acting moments render 461 Days of Bento unable to move the spectator deeply.
Narra-note 1: In truth, Kazuki does not radically change as a father – his life’s philosophy deeply determines his logic of functioning. Yet, the act of making bento for his son does allow his son to eventually see his father in a different light and this new perspective makes all the difference for Kouki.
Narra-note 2: His solitary position in class is function of his age, of the fact that he is one year older than his classmates. Kouki, in fact, holds a very contradictory position in the eyes of the other, a position his classmates could easily exploit to confront him, explicitly as implicitly, with his failure (to pass the high-school entrance exam) and his implied lack of intelligence.