蛇イチゴ 「Hebi Ichigo」
Release Date: September 06th, 2003
Running Time: 119 mins.
Director: Miwa Nishikawa
Writer: Miwa Nishikawa (Screenplay),
Starring: Hiroyuki Miyasako, Miho Tsumiki, Sei Hiraizumi, Naoko Otani, Toru Tezuka, Moeko Ezawa, Susumu Terajima, Matsunosuke Shofukutei, Shota Sometani,
This is a huge review because I really like the film. It goes into detail without spoiling anything but you may want to watch the film before reading any further. A quick summation of the review: this is a debut movie? It’s perfect! Miwa Nishikawa is a genius!
Since her emergence as a director in 2003 Miwa Nishikawa has proven to be one of Japan’s most talented auteurs. She is, amongst other things, a novelist and an award winning independent film director and her talents have firmly planted her as an international film festival favourite leading a wave of female filmmakers finding drama in everyday lives. Wild Berries, her debut feature, is a perfect example. It tells the tale of a middle-class family whose act of normality is a façade that covers up a long history of deceit.
The story takes place over a few days in a suburb in Tokyo and the players at the centre of the action are the Akechi family. The father, Yoshiro (Sei Hiraizumi), is an engineer supposedly slaving away at an office day and night. Akiko (Naoko Otani) is the mother and has taken on the role of loyal housewife. She has the thankless role of looking after her senile father-in-law Kyozo (played by the famous rakugo master Matsunosuke Shofukutei). The household is rounded off by the prim and proper Tomoko (Miho Tsumiki), a teacher who is bringing her boyfriend Kamata (Toru Tezuka) home to meet the folks who might be his future in-laws.
It all goes well.
Kamata is charmed by what he perceives to be a traditional hard-working family with everyone fulfilling their social roles and working hard. Yoshiro is polite and Akiko fawns over Kamata and Kyozo is just a little senile rather than a huge embarrassment while at the dinner table. As soon as Kamata and Tomoko are out the door the true faces of the Akechi’s are revealed by spiteful comments and hurtful remarks. Worse is to come.
Yoshiro doesn’t have a job. He just pretends to go to work and has accrued huge debts to keep up the façade of a working man earning money. Akiko is at breaking point with Kyozo and her family. They pay little attention to the efforts she makes around the house and Kyozo is getting too much to handle. The senile old man is lost in memories of his time in the imperial army and making a mess everywhere. Tomoko is the only one with her act together, making a stern and effective teacher. She has no idea how bad things are at home until her mother Akiko snaps and she lets the old man die…
Secretly, Yoshiro and Akiko are relieved. The public face they put on during Kyozo’s funeral is of an honourable, responsible, and grieving family but that public face slips when Yoshiro’s creditors come calling to collect on his debt and wreck proceedings. Humiliation threatens to swallow this once respectable bourgeois family but in steps a mischief-maker named Shuji (Hiroyuki Miyasako), the wandering son once cast out for being a swindler who swindled his own family!
He arrives, making a stylish entrance pretending to be a lawyer who helps Yoshiro dodge the loan sharks and save face. He brings money and street smarts and offers to save his parents if they listen to him and follow his instructions. Tomoko was a victim of Shuji’s trickery on a few occasions and so, sensing danger, Tomoko tries to save the family from her brother.
Wild Berries is exquisitely directed and written by Nishikawa it seems she came into the world of cinema perfectly formed but she has earned her stripes. She has worked in indie films and on projects helmed by Horikazu Koreeda, most notably when she acted as assistant director on the film Distance (2001). Koreeda has returned the favour by becoming a close collaborator and helping Nishikawa establish herself by acting as producer of her films starting with Wild Berries.
The film’s story is like a dissection of typical middle-class family values as people play up to the social roles that society puts on them and are ultimately found lacking, unable to fulfill them and family demands. The plot twists and character development is quietly devastating and watching the changes sucks audiences into this murky world of deception and cynical actions. The script lays bare the faults of these characters allowing people to pick apart the gears and levers that make the characters work, looking at the massive pressures and expectations on people and while this sounds serious it leads to a degree of black comedy. Exposing the trickery and deceit each character performs leads to a comedy of errors which becomes mordantly amusing the bigger the chaos becomes. At its heart, however, is a sad tale of a family who have grown so far apart and become so morally compromised that they cannot trust each other and communicate.
There is a lot that holds this family together, not just lies. There are moments when family members connect with each other. Yoshiro and Tomoko commute together and talk changes in modern society. Mother and son, Akiko and Shuji josh around, talking about madcap schemes. Brother and sister Shuji and Tomoko whistle the same nursery rhyme, a light-hearted tune with a lot of emotional weight that shows the long connection between the two. However in trying to fulfil roles like mother and father, breadwinner and caregiver, these people have become emotionally enervated and disconnected. Despite occupying the same house, the same space, their alienation from each other has resulted in the façade of civility which covers up growing hostility over the lack of care and attention they show each other. This is made intense by the simultaneous loneliness and closeness they share and it paints a sad picture.
The film rolls by at a quiet and gentle pace, each character getting the time to develop. Long takes and careful editing create a texture that is considered and the simplicity of the filming style foregrounds the acting which allows the audience full view of the characters and so, as Nishikawa strips back the layers of lies from the characters in her script the actors are given the time and space to change their behaviour and help switch the tone of the film and suggest a deeper subtext. The parents initially upright and somewhat sanctimonious soon become physically and psychologically erratic and sluggish with every humiliating revelation while the kids become sharper and more determined as their parents relinquish control of the situation. Perhaps this is a veiled commentary on relations between the generations in Japan, the elders soon give up power, looking the other way as their sins come crashing down on their children who will dictate the future. It is a credit to Nishikawa and her cast that these changes feel absolutely natural rather than forced.
This is great ensemble piece since the actors have a lot of chemistry. There is a wonderful stability, however fake it is, between the Akechi’s with each actor fulfilling their role. Matsunosuke Shofukutei is scarily overbearing and unbearable as Kyozo playing up the grossness of his actions, Sei Hiraizumi as Yoshiro puts up a stern front and knows when to fold like the paper tiger he is and Naoko Otani’s front as a caring woman is wonderfully undercut by her revelation of bitterness and anger. Hiroyuki Miyasako as Shuji is all flash and charm and brings a lot of coolness to his role and it is easy to see people sucked into his scam but he also suggests deep care for his sister Tomoko who is brilliantly portrayed by a controlled performance as Miho Tsumiki.
As the film comes to a close the true leads of the story emerge as brother and sister compete for the future of the family. The lawful upright Tomoko is the only faultless character on screen and she confronts her swindler of a brother and yet even towards the end, after all we have seen, the film gives the audience little clarity on who is right or wrong. It offers hints and suggestions, tugs at the heart with emotions while the head is clouded with suspicions, but offers nothing concrete and remains ambiguous until its very last moment when the titular wild berries appear.
The final scene is simple and yet packed with breath-taking amount of emotion. You realise you have become engaged in this domestic drama where people have had to deal with the idea that they cannot trust and love their nearest and dearest with this image and the final tumultuous emotions felt by Tomoko whose character has been the moral bedrock of the family and the one character who has controlled herself despite disappointments in this sorry fiasco. When she finally crumbles after a revelation it is hard not to join her in a scene perfectly delivered by Miho Tsumiki. It is a harrowing and given heart by a powerful performance by Tsumiki who opens up herself up through her body language after containing herself to show her character’s unravelling. The sense of family ties frayed beyond repair and an unexpected betrayal and the realisation that there was a moment of genuine behaviour caps a story full of nuanced drama.
It is hard to think of a debut so well constructed as this. Wild Berries is a joy to watch and it is hard not to want to go back and watch it again and, after that, imagine what happens to this family. It is deceptively simple, its execution unfussy and its script sticking to a small time frame with a moderately sized cast is profound in what it reveals about this family and, to an extent, Japanese society. Audiences will pick favourite characters, analyse themes and just enjoy this film and they will find a new favourite director. Miwa Nishikawa won me over with Sway, now I’m even more of a fan after watching Wild Berries!