This quiet, lovely Japanese ensemble piece is much haunted. It is haunted by the constant presence of Junpei, the older son whose death by drowning is the cause for the family gathering this film records. It is haunted by the Japanese film maker Yazojiro Ozu and, in particular, his Tokyo Story whose pale but intense interiors this film replicates. It is also haunted by the much more recent Tokyo Sonata with its record of the pretences and games that unemployment has occasioned among, particularly, Japanese men.
The family is curtly dominated by the patriarchal Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) a retired doctor. His wife, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) is both plaintive and long-suffering at the same time. And his daughter, Chinami (You), ditsy and feisty, conspires with her mother for them to come and live with her and her husband. It is the second son, Ryoshi (Hiroshi Abe) who bears the brunt of all this. Not only has he manifestly failed to live up to his father’s ambition for him to take over his medical practice, but he has failed to take that mantle on from the long-lamented Junpei. In addition, Ryoshi has married a widow and taken on a step-son. At one point, his mother complains that it would have been better if he had married a divorcee because at least a divorcee would have ‘got rid’ of one husband. What he also doesn’t tell his parents is that he is unemployed.
Each year, this same mother invites the slobby, unemployed ne’er-do-well, Junpei saved in dying himself, to the anniversary. She does this, she tells Ryoshi, in order to be cruel to the man; to remind him of the debt he owes.
The film focuses on the tense relationship between disappointed father and disappointing son. But it is the love of Ryoshi’s new wife and the step-son who awakens in the grandfather a more paternal, kindly tone that suggest a redemption is possible. And the film ends with them gathered at the brother’s grave accompanied by stepson and daughter, to preserve the mother’s ritual of pouring water over the headstone to cool the brother in the heat of the summer
Kore-eda’s triumph is to make this family, beset by the axes each has to grind, richly human. The even pace and lyrical depth of the film make this an experience to cherish.