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What a Wonderful Family! 2
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by Jay Seaver

"Another sweet, hilarious visit with the Hirata family."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Yoji Yamada is obviously not going to make as many "What a Wonderful Family!" movies as he did Tora-san entries; production moves slower these days even if I suspect that he is writing what he knows in terms of infusing these comedies with themes about the challenges of aging as well as the sillier bits of farce that push the plots forward. But I hope he keeps going; I've grown fond of the Hirata family and love the studio-era traditionalism found here.

This one follows up on the first, probably a year or two later, and for the most part everything is as Yamada left it - Shuzo Hirata (Isao Hashizume) and his wife Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) did not wind up divorcing, but they do spend most of their time doing their own things. Eldest son Konosuke (Masahiko Nishimura), his wife Fumie (Yui Natsukawa), and their own sons Kenichi (Takanosuke Nakamura) and Nobusuke (Ayumu Marumaya) still live with them, but youngest son Shota (Satoshi Tsumabuki) has married Noriko Mamiya (Yu Aoi) and moved out. Fumie notes that Shuzo's car has a fresh dent or two on it, and suggests his daughter Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima) talk to him about giving up his driver's license, but everyone is kind of afraid to confront him about that. Meanwhile, as Tomiko takes a trip to Scandinavia to see the Northern Lights, Shuzo and lady friend Kayo (Jun Fubuki) encounter one of his old high school classmates, Ginpei Maruta (Nenji Kobayashi), handsome and from a successful family back in the day but living alone and working a road crew at the age of 73 now.

There's neither fussiness nor showing off in Yamada's movies; he sets a situation up cleanly, trusts his actors to communicate the right emotion, and then moves on, juggling his large cast without losing track of anyone or making transitions abrupt. And yet, it's kind of amazing how much he is able to get the audience to invest in little things. The first act of this movie is built almost entirely around Shuzo's family trying to get the 73-year-old man to give up his driver's license, without it really spiraling into other things, but as much as it's a small plot, it's one that gets the audience reacquainted with these characters, and which is certainly a big deal for them. It's funny by being both very generally relatable and very specific.

And the laughs keep coming. Isao Hashizume picks up where he left off as Shuzo, delivering a hilarious performance as the often selfish and short-tempered head of the family, doing an even better job of finding the spot where this curmudgeon triggers affection rather than irritation, helped a great deal by the fact that Masahiko Nishimura is more present this time as a son who undeniably takes after his father despite his frequent annoyance at the old man. The film is peppered with good one-liners, slapstick, and perfect reaction shots, and little details like the kids in the corners of the frame or chowing down on the leftovers from another interrupted family meeting. It's a comedy clinic, boosted by a soundtrack from Joe Hisaishi that is never afraid to underscore what an old-fashioned sort of comedy this is.

It's the moments when Yamada slips away from being funny that make the movie arguably even better than its predecessor. Yamada had Yu Aoi's Noriko flat-out say that a family this close-knit is a gift in the first, and Yamada spends a little time looking at Noriko's family this time out, and weaves another story around Shuzo's high-school friend that would potentially be heart-breaking disconnected from the fundamentally decent if loud and argumentative Hiratas. You read stories about how elder neglect or the simple lack of a next generation in many cases leads to tragedy, particularly in Japan, and Yamada takes a moment or two to rage at this, but he's generally much more interested in praising good support and making a case for it, showing how tight ties between generations are important for far more than sentimental reasons.

And then he makes a supremely silly joke on the tail of a sincere and emotional scene, because he's just that good. I don't know how many more visits we'll have with the Hiratas - I gather this film wasn't the hit in Japan that the first one was - but I'll take whatever else Yamada wants to give.

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originally posted: 07/25/17 01:49:31
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