Friday, July 28, 2023

Japan Cuts ’23: Father of the Milky Way Railroad

Kenji Miyazawa was poorly served by his publishers in his lifetime, but anime and manga adaptations made him a posthumous giant of Japanese literature. His life was tragically short, but his father believed in his talent, at least most of the time. The Miyazawas’ close but sometimes difficult father-and-son relationship is the focus of Izuru Narushima’s Father of the Milky Way Railroad, which screens tomorrow as part of this year’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Masujiro Miyazawa is a reasonably prosperous country pawnbroker, like his grouchier father. He considers himself a contemporary man of the late Meiji Era, but Masujiro still assumes his firstborn son will succeed him in the family business. However, as Kenji grows older and more headstrong, he envisions other destinies for himself, including as an agricultural expert and as acolyte in a severe Buddhist sect.

Of course, writing was his true calling, but it takes a family tragedy to re-awaken his fantastical creativity. Throughout it all, Miyazawa’s father continues to support him, despite often losing patience in his flaky behavior.

In fact, their relationship is surprisingly believable. There is a lot of tear-jerking in Narushima’s film, but he and the cast earn their big emotional pay-offs. Sadly, this is the kind of deeply felt family drama the American film industry cannot be bothered with anymore. There is no secret abuse to expose or power dynamics to subvert. It is just a family, relatively progressive for its time, dealing with the challenges and disappointments of life.

Koji Yakusho’s gruff but soulful persona is perfect fit for Masujiro Miyazawa. He just so naturally assumes the well-meaning father’s skin, viewers might miss how good he is. Ironically, Masaki Suda’s cold-blooded performance as Kenji might put off some of the writer’s admirers, but he hits the right notes for the character and the film. It falls on Nana Mori to really lower the emotional boom as Kenji’s sister Toshi.

Inevitably, most of the audience for
Father will be fans of the classic 1985 anime feature adaptation of Night on the Galactic Railroad, alluded to in the international title, but the film does not offer up much on the way of easter eggs for the faithful. It is clearly intended for general audiences. It is a sad and lovely film that is old-fashioned, in a good way. Recommended for patrons who appreciate period family drama, Father of the Milky Way Railroad screens tomorrow (7/29) as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.