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Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2000


Father does his dysfunctional best

Japanese society doesn't often hand out second chances. Students who fail entrance exams to elite universities and salarymen restructured out of lifetime jobs are often regarded as damaged goods and relegated to social discard bins. There are exceptions, however, one being director Tsutomu Abe, whose first film, the 1998 comedy "Shiawase Kazoku Keikaku (Happy Family Plan)," nearly disappeared, unreleased, into a studio vault.

The production company, Shochiku, was awash in red ink at the time and, to stay financially afloat, was jettisoning films from its line-up. "Shiawase" was among those getting the heave-ho. Hearing of Abe's plight, friends from his native Sendai formed a support group in November 1998 for releasing and publicizing the film locally.

By the time of the film's opening in Sendai Feb. 26, the group had grown to more than 600 members and nearly everyone in town had heard of its PR efforts through reports in the local media. A stage appearance on opening night by the film's star, Tomokazu Miura, gave the film another publicity boost and it became a hit. Now it is playing in Shochiku theaters nationwide. A happy ending for "Shiawase."

As a product, "Shiawase" falls between marketing stools -- not big enough to justify a wide release, not arty enough to send on the festival circuit. As a film, though, it is better than its shabby treatment by Shochiku would lead one to expect. Far from being damaged goods, it is a light comedy with a rare combination of heart and brains. A long-time assistant director for Shochiku legend Yoji Yamada, Abe has his old boss's populist touch, but less of his trademark sentimentality. He is instead closer in sensibility to Masayuki Suo, the director of the sweet-tempered, but wryly comic, "Shall We Dance?"

The title refers to the long-running TBS show in which the father of an ordinary family ("ordinary" usually meaning at least two school-age children) is given a "homework assignment" to complete in a week's time, such as juggling three boxes or memorizing Shinkansen stations. If he performs his "assignment" flawlessly in front of the TV audience, he and his loved ones get the "dreams" of their choice, up to 3 million yen in value: a car for Dad, a motorbike for Junior, a trip to Guam for Sis and a dishwasher for Mom. If he makes one mistake, however, he ends up with nothing.

Most contestants, in fact, end up with nothing, which never seems to hurt the ratings. The show, which is a powerful metaphor for the way things work in Japanese society, attracts thousands of would-be contestants, but the lucky selectees are often not anyone's idea of ideal. Instead they are frankly eccentric nails that never got near a hammer. All the more entertaining for the show's millions of fans, of course.

Fujio Kawajiri (Tomokazu Miura) is, as the film begins, a most unlikely "Shiawase" contestant. Still boyishly handsome in his 40s, a hustling salesman for a major food maker, he seems to be on the upward track -- until he is suddenly derailed by a company restructuring drive. With no new job in sight, he moves wife Yuko (Eriko Watanabe), daughter Yoko (Aya Hirayama) and son Yutaro (Kazuyoshi Sasaki) to the wagashi (Japanese sweet) shop in Yokohama run by Yuko's parents.

Living above the store, however, has few charms. Ojiichan (Chosuke Ikariya) and Obaachan (Yoko Nogiwa) are colorful types (Ojiichan likes to swank around in a Humphrey Bogart trenchcoat; Obaachan, to swill sake and talk salty), but business is bad. Meanwhile, Yoko is being teased by her new junior-high classmates and Yutaro is struggling, hopelessly, to master baseball basics so he can join the primary school team. Then Yuko, who may be a nag but is full of a tanklike drive, gets the idea of starting a franchise o-bento business.

After overcoming resistance from Ojiichan (injured masculine pride and all that), she sets up shop and is soon a roaring success. But where, in the midst of all this familial activity, is a place for Fujio? Handing out fliers for the o-bento shop is hardly a career move; neither is apprenticing himself to his father-in-law. A former colleague comes to him with an Internet business scheme that looks like a sure thing, until it isn't -- and Fujio finds himself out 2 million badly needed yen.

Then, just when his self-esteem has hit bottom, Yutaro tells him that he has sent a postcard to the "Shiawase Kazoku Keikaku" show -- and they have replied with an invitation to an interview! Dad has a chance to be a contestant! Isn't that wonderful news?

Well, not really, but Fujio and family impress the producers as amusingly dysfunctional and soon the "Happiness Delivery Man" arrives with an ironically appropriate assignment: play "Home Sweet Home" on the piano. Fujio, however, is a ham-handed klutz. How can he possibly be ready by the big day of the broadcast?

It's no surprise that he learns Life Lessons on his way to his date with destiny. What is surprising is how Miura, once a teen heartthrob whose main claim to fame was his wooing and winning of pop diva Momoe Yamaguchi, has matured into an actor of considerable resources, who can play Fujio at his most depressed without turning bathetic, at his most foolish without straining for laughs. While projecting the gravitas needed to make the role more than a caricature, Miura has a natural touch for the story's lighter comic moments. He gives the film a solid but likable center, without which it would quickly degenerate into a dotabata (slapstick) free-for-all, with plot elements colliding like so many supercharged electrons.

Abe also deserves credit for smoothly handling the various crisscrossing story lines -- including subplots about a handsome wagashi apprentice (Hiroshi Abe) whose presence create fissures in Fujio and Yuko's marriage and an irascible former colleague (Tsurutaro Kataoka) who has fallen even farther than Fujio and envies his shot at game-show glory. Even so, there is too much going on too frantically -- one reason, perhaps, why Shochiku let the film sit in the can so long.

But I'm glad it's out. Most Japanese comedies irritate or exhaust, but "Shiawase" is a lift. Doesn't everyone need some happiness?

"Shiawase Kazoku Keikaku" is playing at Shinjuku Piccadilly and at Shibuya Cine Palace until Sept. 29.

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