Americans were raised on shows like Full House, so our conception of family is the more the merrier. Japan is more reserved and innately more concerned with issues of authenticity. At least that is certainly the case for two families linked by step-children in Yukiko Mishima’s Dear Etranger (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.
Makoto Tanaka lives with his second wife Nanae and his two step-daughters, cute-as-a-button-five-ish Eriko and the surly sixth-grader (if that’s not a redundancy) Kaoru. He still sees his first daughter Saori during his limited visits, but she lives with her mother, Tanaka’ ex-wife Yuka and her second husband. Unfortunately, he is rapidly succumbing to late-diagnosis cancer.
Tanaka’s new family also has plenty of drama to contend with, most obviously starting with Nanae’s pregnancy. Resenting this development, Kaoru becomes obsessed with the notion Tanaka is preventing her from seeing her biological father, the abusive compulsive gambler, Sawada. For extra added pressure on Tanaka, he has just been demoted from his salaryman executive position to a job picking orders in the company’s warehouse.
Haruhiko Arai’s screenplay, based on Kiyoshi Shigematsu’s novel, basically unleashes the perfect storm of family challenges, but everything feels believable and true to life, except maybe Kaoru’s hyper-petulance. Seriously kid, give us a break. In fact, Sara Minami is forced to play Kaoru as such a one-note pill, she is considerably outshined by the young but wildly mediagenic Miu Arai as Eriko and Raiju Kamata as Saori, who really scores the film’s knockout punch confronting Tanaka late in the third act.
Yet, for the most part, Etranger is remarkably even-handed. Rena Tanaka and Shinobu Terajima are both unusually potent and messily human as Nanae and Yuka, respectively. It is like their character assets and liabilities are perfectly balanced, item for item. Tadanobu Asano gives them the space and support to shine in their key scenes together, but as Tanaka, he is truly the heart and soul of the film. He is the ultra-Everyman, but with an edge and fraying patience. Likewise, as the contemptible Sawada, Kankuro Kudo finds ways to surprise viewers and humanize his character.
You could almost think of Etranger as the red-headed step-child of Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son and Miiwa Nishikawa’s The Long Excuse. It is a quiet film, but there is nothing simple about its family angst. Very highly recommended, Dear Etranger screens tomorrow (7/29) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.