It's funny how some coincidences happen. Just before going to watch Ryota Nakano's "Her Love Boils Bathwater" I read Mark Schilling's review of Seijiro Koyama's "Sakura" from his book "Contemporary Japanese Film". To start, he quote Donald Richie with whom he watched the film: "Now that was a Japanese movie." This is a statement that could be lodged firmly at the start of any review for Nakano's film.
So I went there. Featuring a cast of people you have definitely seen in other films, this is a classic Japanese movie of a constant barrage of turmoil heaved our heroine's way, forcing her to dig deep to overcome adversity, with a big dollop of "we can succeed if we all pull together" spirit.
Futaba (Rie Miyazawa) is a single mother to her sole daughter Azumi (Hana Sugisaki). Living at their now defunct public bathhouse - the owner, her husband, having "disappeared like steam" - she works in a bakery while Azumi struggles with bullying at school. On learning she has terminal pancreatic cancer, she feels it's time to re-ignite an old flame.
Having located her husband Kazuhiro (man of hair Joe Odagiri), via a Japanese staple PI (Taro Suruga), she drags him, and his illegitimate daughter Ayuko (Aoi Ito), back to the bathhouse to open its doors once more. As Futaba's illness worsens, so do Azumi's school troubles, but tears provoke strength in her daughter to overcome the bullies and take on her share of responsibility for the bathhouse.
Planning one final road trip with the girls to see Mount Fuji, Futaba has one final revelation for Azumi: she is not her real mother. It is following this that Futaba's health takes a turn for the worse, seeing out her final days in a hospital bed while her family keep the bathhouse waters running.
In the world of "Her Love Boils Bathwater", the turmoil that needs to be overcome seems to be that of abandoning mothers: Ayuko has been abandoned by her mother, left with her loafing buffoon of a father; PI Takimoto is always accompanied by his young daughter after his wife died in childbirth; and as we discover, Azumi is not Futaba's daughter, but the child of the deaf-mute ex-wife of Kazuhiro.
All of these young women find a surrogate mother-figure in Futaba, showing her strength of character to help raise and comfort them, despite, as we learn, having been abandoned by her own mother when a young child. All this doesn't exactly paint a great image of mothers, but also makes Miyazawa and her relationships with her fellow cast members the strength of the film.
Nakano tried to build close relationships between the cast during shooting, creating an almost temporary family among them. And this works. The young "daughters" respond well to Futaba when she's at both her most strict and caring, and grow as Futaba declines. This is a far cry from Odagiri's performance as the seemingly apathetic Kazuhiro. He seems to perpetually play the role of an eighteen year-old boyfriend responding to his girlfriend's calls to meet her parents, while smoking a cigarette, but he does this with an effortless cool; the perfect foil to Futaba's strength.
But while the acting and character relations are strong, the Japanese movie Richie was referring to perhaps sends this film into overkill territory. Adversity is slapped around our faces like a wet fish, with tears thrown straight into our eyes by the bucket-load. This somewhat detracts from the power of Futaba's struggle, with certain elements that could have been removed. Poignancy can come a little more subtly.
When I watched Akio Kondo's"Eclair" I was perhaps somewhat naive in my conclusions. While indentifying the over-sentimentality on display, I should have perhaps been more aware of the staple diet of Japanese commercial cinema and its need to tick boxes. You simply must have someone give someone a bike ride. The "all pulling together" spirit of the film's conclusion is as cheesy as it is sickly sweet.
Put forward as Japan's 2017 Oscar submission, this is a film that certainly represents Japanese film. The fact that it wasn't put forward for nomination, however, reflects its overall quality.