EXPECTATIONS: No idea. But it has FUMI NIKAIDO!!
REVIEW: I honestly have no expectations of what this film is about. I didn’t browse through reviews or watch the trailer, but all I knew about this film was that Fumi Nikaido and Kyoko Koizumi were in it as the two leads. I have fan-boyed over Nikaido for long enough, like praising her versatility of roles like playing a human equivalent of a goldfish to a psychopathic terrorist, so I won’t dwell more into it. As for Koizumi, I’ve been an admirer of her work because she is such a quiet force of nature that her sheer presence will elicit a reaction from anyone. Her roles in the thrilling TV drama (later turned into feature-length) Penance to the under-seen darkly comic drama Before the Vigil and the horrifically true family drama Tokyo Sonata are clear examples of her talent. So with two impeccably talented actresses in the leads, that alone got me excited. And to have the screenwriter of great films of A Story of Yonosuke and Isn’t Anyone Alive? at the helm, this got near the top of the lists of films I wanted to see. Did the film live up to the talent involved or will it fizzle out with a light blow-up?
Fumi Nikaido stars as the titular character, Kako, a high school who is trudging through the boring summer holidays, taking care of her niece at her family’s restaurant at Kitashinagawa. She has an affinity for past events, particularly ones that involve deaths and kidnapping (or in one case, crocodiles), and points out that she can see the future. And because of that so-called gift, she has incredibly low expectations of the future for herself, as well as others. But her life suddenly changes when her Aunt Mikiko (Kyoko Koizumi) suddenly appears into her life. And this is a huge surprise for the whole family, not just because of a long absence, but she was assumed to have been dead for 18 years. But what made her come back into the family life? Where has she been? What has she been doing? Who is she? Rumours begin to spread that she may have been overseas, fighting the government. Making bombs, destroying Yakuza headquarters; sounds like things a typical Aunt would do.
The film’s narrative is as weird as if gets, but it sure doesn’t play out that way. It plays out as understated as Japanese cinema can reach, and considering the mileage that director Shiro Maeda gets out of it, I think he made the right choice with his approach. Not having seen his directorial debut, The Extreme Sukiyaki, I have no prior knowledge of how his direction would come about, but I think he did a good job writing/directing this film. The dialogue is drolly cynical yet surprisingly human and the odd story is dealt with in a calm way, that the humour is more sly than explicit and the ridiculous elements peppered throughout the story all have a good payoff that lends weight and growth to the characters. A subplot involving crocodiles is a great example and it makes the ending very satisfying. A repeat viewing is recommended just to watch all the moments and to figure out what they mean, but that’s part of the fun.
There is also a healthy amount of offbeat humour that made me chuckle quite a bit, that thankfully feels natural to the story, and is not just included for the sake of laughs. There’s a scene where Kako is staring intently towards the water to see if there are any crocodiles while other civilians are running towards two people angrily fighting each other in the background. People are telling Kako about it, but she pays no mind to them whatsoever, to the point where she claims that she’s seen it all. The scene stands out because it clearly focuses more on the character (as the shot placement shows Kako in the foreground, and the fight in the background) and her contrast between her and the supposed main event was funny to witness. Other offbeat moments involve Kako babysitting her unnamed niece and she again stands in one spot and stares at her intently and there is a scene in the final act that involves the use of an umbrella that starts out dramatic but ends up being funny because it starts off dramatic. And don’t get me started on the tip of that scene. When you watch the film, you will know what I mean when I say the word “tip”.
With all the humour that I have stated, it seems like I am making the film out as an all-out comedy, but it isn’t. There’s plenty of relationships and character reveals to go around and they all get their moments to shine, but it is not seen to be significant to the story all that much, but the characters themselves. Director Maeda creates distinct and compelling characters and his storytelling is complimentary to them in the best way. Kako is as world-weary as it gets, but she seems to have an unhealthy fixation with the past. The enigmatic Mikiko is a cool and collected woman, in a graceful way that only Kyoko Koizumi can portray, but her attitude is unexpected when you consider the rumour that she could be a terrorist. And despite the hatred that Kako has towards Mikiko, she is again fixated towards someone elses’ past and she gradually realizes that they are more similar than she would care to admit. Both ample in storytelling as well as character growth, director Maeda has a subtle, yet assured hand that makes it work.
But none of the characters would stand out as well without the talented cast. The character of Kako could have been seen as annoying, but thankfully Nikaido sidesteps that pratfall with such a sardonic attitude that it comes off as witty. The first scene she has is with an aspiring rock-star (Yuki Yamada) and it sets her performance perfectly. Kyoko Koizumi is fantastic as Mikiko, showing the sense of grace that Koizumi always does but to apply it to a character that has a subtle fire in her, it gives the character a very sophisticated and surprisingly philosophical side that piques the audience’s interest as well as the character of Kako’s. The character is the catalyst of the story and that is when the film takes flight, thanks to Koizumi. It certainly helps that the chemistry between her and Nikaido works wonders as the crabbiness of the latter compliments the cool and impassive behaviour of the former. The rest of the cast are great like Kengo Kora as the stranger and Itsuji Itao as the father who may have a secret up his sleeve.
The story may be a bit too weird for some and the characters may not be inherently likable for the mainstream to take interest in. Some of the character’s actions may turn people off and in this day of age, it can be seen as downright irresponsible. Plus, for those who are expecting the film to be more overstated and insistent in either of its comedy or drama will definitely leave disappointed, as director Maeda’s approach to the story is more understated. The film’s pacing can be a bit faster, but it complements the ennui that the characters experience throughout.
Kako: My Sullen Past is an offbeat family drama that stands out due to the performances of the two leads, director Maeda’s script and its compelling mixture of surrealistic humour and the understated human drama.
Fantastic lead performances
Maeda’s offbeat script and story
The wonderfully and surrealistic humour compliments the human drama in a subtle manner
Many odd moments all coalesce in the end
The slow pace and understated approach may irk audiences
Some irresponsible actions from the characters
Cast: Kyoko Koizumi, Fumi Nikaido, Kengo Kora, Itsuji Itao, Mochika Yamada, Kumi Hyodo, Yuki Yamada, Takashi Kodama, Ahmad Ali, Makoto Otake, Kitaro, Shigeru Saiki, Mei Kurokawa, Masayo Umezawa
Director: Shiro Maeda
Screenwriters: Shiro Maeda