Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5
Original Title: Shizukana seikatsu
Japan, 1995. Itami Productions. Screenplay by Jûzô Itami, based on the novel by Kenzaburo Oe. Cinematography by Yonezô Maeda. Music by Hikari Oe. Production Design by Naotsugu Kawaguchi. Film Editing by Akira Suzuki.
A number of stories written by Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburô Ôe form the basis of this melodrama by Ôe’s brother-in-law Juzo Itami. The central characters are a brother and sister who, along with their third sibling, are left to take care of each other when their famous novelist father (Tsutomu Yamazaki, returning to Itami’s work after eight years) accepts a teaching gig in Australia for a year.
Brother Eeyore is mentally challenged, which means that sister Maa-chan has to look out for him, which she does with no small amount of anxiety but with even more affection and joy. As always in Itami’s world-building, the characters’ experiences are related through a series of small plot arcs, including Maa-chan’s concern that her brother’s simple sweetness will get him mistaken for a child molester, her memories of life with their parents before they left, her experiences taking her brother out into a cruel and judgmental world, and then, most notable and significant to the plot, Eeyore and Maa-chan’s friendship with Arai, who they meet at a public swimming pool where he offers to teach the aquaphobic Eeyore how to swim.
Getting to know him better, they discover that Arai has a dark secret in his past involving his suspicious involvement in a homicide, and that he has a connection with their father that seems to have left bad blood between them.
Itami’s real-life wife Nobuko Miyamoto gives another gemlike performance here, this time in a supporting role but with just as memorable a character hairstyle as ever before, as the passionate left-wing wife of Eeyore’s devoted music teacher, who gets the youngsters involved in a protest at the Polish parliament and then ends up being instrumental in helping them understand Arai’s past and their connection with him.
Rich characters and a genuine feeling of tenderness between the siblings get things going quite nicely in this unabashedly sentimental film, but it doesn’t sustain its sharpness for long thanks to two major problems: Atsuro Watabe is not lacking in talent in his first major film role, but it’s very obvious that he is a neurotypical actor putting on the behaviours of a mentally challenged character, and Itami can never not treat him like a magical presence who was born simply to fulfill a position as an artistic fantasy.
Even more of a problem, however, is that the many strands of the plot get tonally messy by the final act, throwing a murder mystery in to a film that began as a sweet examination of love and devotion between its two main characters, which feels like a desperate plea to keep an audience’s waning attention under control.