Veteran director Yoji Yamada returns to us with his first contemporary setting film in quite some time, a reworking of Kon Ichikawa’s 1960 film Otouto (Her Brother). Like Ichikawa’s film, Yamada’s About Her Brother is also a family drama about a sister’s unconditional love for her younger brother despite all the trouble he causes her.
In this version of the story the protagonists are a little older; the sister, Ginko (Sayuri Yoshinaga), has been widowed many years and is preparing for the marriage of her daughter to a research doctor from a well to do Tokyo family. They’ve sent an invitation to Ginko’s younger brother Tetsuro (Tsurube Shofukutei), but it’s come back as undeliverable. Although a bit sad, both mother and daughter are relieved - Tetsuro can be a little uncouth when he’s been drinking. The day of the ceremony arrives and who should come running up the hotel stairs just in time for the reception? Yes, uncle Tetsuro, who has found out about the ceremony from a chance encounter with a distant relative. He swears if they let him in he’ll behave himself and stay off the booze. However, by the end of the ceremony Tetsuro has got roaring drunk, given a speech, started singing and finally collapsed over a dining table upending it in front of everyone. Needless to say, the wealthy Tokyoites are non-plussed to say the least, even complaining that Tetsuro should have been mentioned in the marriage negotiations as they’re worried about their grandchild inheriting the DNA of a drunk!
I imagine a lot people have had a relative a bit like Tetsuro; a little “off the wall” and lots of fun to begin with, especially if you’re a child. Time moves on though, and what was amusing to begin with soon becomes tiring until eventually you begin to dread said relative’s arrival and secretly hope that maybe he won’t come this time. Tetsuro is his own worst enemy - always broke, always in trouble, always needing someone to bail him out. He calls himself an actor but he barely makes any money at all performing a handful of one-man shows a year. At the time we first meet him he’s trying to make amends by taking a steady job making Takoyaki and getting serious with a woman who works there. Can this reformation last though? How long will it be until we next hear from Tetsuro, and what will he want when we do?
Despite the instructions of the older brother as the head of the family that they should all totally sever connections with Tetsuro, Ginko can’t bring herself to do it. Eventually Tetsuro ends up causing her both embarrassment and severe financial burden, leading to an argument following which they lose touch. Ginko regrets this bitterly and when she finally discovers his whereabouts she’s deeply worried by what she hears. Some firm decisions will need to be made regarding Tetsuro and how the family feels about him. If they don’t act quickly it could be too late.
There isn’t much point pretending About Her Brother is anything other than a very traditional family melodrama. Where it does differ a little from the normal pattern is that rather than a spoilt young man who’ll have to learn to grow up through the course of the film, Tetsuro is already in his forties and completely incapable of taking care of himself. Where you’d normally be contrasting youthful carelessness with the rigidity of the older generation, here you’re forced to ask yourself if a forty year old man who’s always in trouble is anyone’s responsibility other than his own. Should his family continue to clear up after him until he finally matures or should they just cut him loose and force him to fend for himself? If they did that though, could they live with themselves if he failed and ended up cold and alone on the streets?
There is also the familiar preoccupation with marriage – the wedding of Ginko’s daughter (Yu Aoi) may kick start the film but that doesn’t mean her romantic subplot is over. Watching her reconnect with a childhood friend (Ryo Kase) provides one of the more hopeful aspects of the film as well as enabling us to come pleasingly full circle by the end. Koharu’s own relationship with Tetsuro is also an interesting contrast to that of her mother. It’s Koharu who first introduces us to her uncle in voice over, reminiscing over his wacky antics in her childhood, but it’s her attitude that’s the coldest towards the end of the film. She can’t understand how her mother can continue to have anything to do with her brother and is dead against any further contact with him. As time moves on she must learn to appreciate the love her uncle has for her despite the trouble he has caused in her life.
Yoji Yamada’s About Her Brother is, then, a very traditional example of the family drama genre but skewed in a more modern direction. Labelling it ‘tear-jerker’ doesn’t quite cover the last half hour or so, and the melodrama really becomes a little thick towards the end, meaning that many will find it just too sentimental to be taken seriously. As you might expect from a director of this calibre all of the performances are very fine, with Tsurube Shofukutei in particular managing to bring out Tetsuro’s charming qualities while preventing him from being as annoying to the audience as he is to certain members of the family. About Her Brother might not have anything new to add to a crowded area of Japanese film-making, but it is nevertheless a very fine addition to and example of its genre.
About Her Brother was screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, which takes place in London, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Bristol and Nottingham. You can find more details about these events on the official web site.