Dir/scr: O Mipo. Jap. 2006. 102mins.
Debut film-maker O Mipo mayfind that The Sakai's Happiness, herlaudably understated approach to family life in a provincial town, will findfavour with critics but alienate many potential audiences. Keeping at all timeswithin the boundaries of low-key drama, it's the sort of feature that mightstrike impatient viewers as too shy for its own good, restraining emotionswhich would usually see the light of day.
Despite some acting that verges on the mute, O Mipo neverthelesspaints an often moving drama that combines coming-of-age crises and familybreakdowns. Specialised arthouse audiences are likelyto respond best, although festivals may debate whether they trust their crowdsenough to serve them this kind of dish.
Terumi (Tomochika), whose firstmarriage came to a tragic end when her husband and older son died in anaccident, has remarried after several years to Masakazu (Yusuke Santamaria), an out-of-town man.
The couple has two kids: Tsuguo (Morita Naoyuki), a 14-year-oldson, from Terumi's first marriage; and Hikaru (Nanami Nabemoto), born from the second. All in all they are apresentable, but by no means exceptional, lower-class family who seem to havenothing serious to worry about.
But look closer and strainscan be perceived. There is the uneasy relationship between stepfather andstepson; the problems between husband and wife; and the son's morose and adolescencecrises at home and in class, particularly with girls whose tentative advancesupset him.
All this material isintroduced step by step, with an unobtrusive camera which looks attentively butnever overtly intrudes into any of these lives.
The friction becomes morepronounced when Masakazu decides, some 40 minutes into the film,that he is gay and moves to a friend's house. Terumiis too hurt to argue but Tsuguo, who has never reallytaken to his stepfather before and always refused to treat him as an actual parent,is shocked out of his teen surliness by the unexplained departure. He demandsan explanation for what has happened and starts examining the world around him.
In the process Tsuguo discovers some of the less appealing aspects ofadult life, including his grandfather's senility and the truth about hismother's marriages. It all results in the teen radically changing his attitudetowards his stepfather.
The shadow of past Japanesemasters is very much in the air here, but O Mipo hassome way to go before she can come close to Ozu. Theending is probably the picture's most serious flaw, resorting to an artificialsolution to what appears to be a tragic set of circumstances. In the processthe script loses its credibility, and instead of faithfully sticking to simple,straightforward realism, sinks into melodramatic cuteness.
It could be argued that thescreenplay's treatment of homosexuality as whole falters, and that itultimately proves to be a faltering dramatic device whose impact on itscharacters is never dealt with properly.
But such drawbacks shouldnot detract from some of the evident qualities of The Sakai's Happiness. O Mipo does prove herself a keen observer of small details in the relationshipsbetween the characters, reflected through such scenes as the feud in the wife'sfamily to which her husband responds with an uncontrollable fit of laughter.
Other telling sequencesinclude a teacher sharing with her class her happiness at being pregnant; andthe moving conversation between Masakazu and Tsuguoin the hospital, when the former shyly tries to refer to himself as his'father' and then corrects himself every time.
Tomochika and Yusuke Santamaria (whoappeared in Kyoshi Kurosawa's Doppelganger) offer some subtle insights into their parts withoutever forcing a note, while Morita Naoyuki identifieswith the adolescent confusion of his role.
All technical credits aresatisfactory, although the tendency to distinctly lower background sound duringconversation is a bit too obvious.
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