“What a Wonderful Family!” – Yoji Yamada reassembles his “Tokyo Family” cast for a humorous examination of family dynamics

In 2013, veteran director Yoji Yamada remade one of the classics of Japanese cinema, Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story. The film Tokyo Family,  went on to be nominated across all leading categories at the Japanese Academy Awards, although it eventually didn’t win any. Perhaps one reason for the lack of wins was that it didn’t break any new ground, neither cinematic technique nor how it tackled the theme of the generational distance. It was merely a ‘present day’ retelling of those fateful few days in the lives of the Hirayama family. If anything, it further showcased the brilliance of the original film, that it could ring as true 60 years later.

The remake was a success principally because of the cast and if there was a casting director credited for the film (there isn’t), then that’s the person who should have been felicitated with an award. In my review dated October 2014, I had already singled out Yu Aoi for filling in the shoes of acting legend Setsuko Hara in the role of Noriko, but it’s a fact that all the actors clicked together beautifully in this ensemble piece.

They obviously clicked with the director too, because three years later, he reassembled the entire cast to make What a Wonderful Family!, a comedy about a modern urban familyAll the key actors return, playing the same roles, but this time in a new family, the Hiratas – the grandparents Shuzo and Tomiko Hirata (played by Isao Hashizume and Kazuko Yoshiyuki respectively), the three grown-up siblings (Masahiko Nishimura is the eldest son Konosuke, Tomoko Nakajima is the middle daughter Shigeko and Satoshi Tsumabuki is the youngest unmarried son, Shota) and their spouses/ partners (Yui Natsukawa plays Konosuke’s wife Fumie, Hayashiya Shozo is Shigeko’s husband Taizo and everyone’s favourite Yu Aoi is Noriko, the fiancée of the youngest son). A couple of the supporting characters from Tokyo Family return in similar (but expanded) roles, Jun Fubuki as Kayo, the owner of an izakaya and Nenji Kobayashi as Ginnpei, an old classmate of the grandfather.

For those who have watched Tokyo Family, the twist in What a Wonderful Family! is in the switching of personalities of the key characters. The grandfather who was soft-spoken and generous in Tokyo Family is now arrogant, chauvinistic and uncaring of others. The level-headed oldest son has now become brash and impatient. Not surprisingly, the two of them are constantly at loggerheads with each other. The irresponsible and unreliable youngest son has now become the sensible one with a respectable, fulfilling job and it is he the family turns to whenever there is a need to defuse a family crisis. Only Yu Aoi as Noriko remains unchanged as the gracious, caring and gentle fiancée of the youngest son. All fans of Yazujiro Ozu know of Setsuko Hara’s various interpretations of the selfless character “Noriko” and it’s great to see Yamada-san continuing the tradition.

Unlike Tokyo Story, which showcased the grandparents as a loving couple devoted to each other, What a Wonderful Family! starts off with a bombshell – the grandmother on her birthday informs her husband that she would like a divorce. This announcement throws the entire family into chaos and the rest of the movie is all about how the three siblings try to prevent the divorce from happening. Although the tone is comedic, the underlying issues and interpersonal dynamics are representative of any family around the world and this is why the movie is so watchable.

Yamada-san knows a thing or too about creating characters that audiences fall in love with. For decades, he has been directing the Tora-san movies, about an ordinary fellow who is the black sheep of his family and who is forever in search of love. Tora-san endeared himself to Japanese audiences over 48 movies running from 1969 to 1995! Every film had essentially the same plot revolving around Tora-san’s unsuccessful pursuit of love and his awkward interactions with his family. The series ended with the death of the lead actor in 1996.

In 1993, Yamada-san directed a film called A Class to Remember, about a high school teacher who teaches night school to a group of disadvantaged adults in a poor neighborhood; it was so successful that he churned out 3 more films in this series over the next 7 years.

Well, it looks like he has now found the seed of a new series; with the success of What a Wonderful Family! in 2016, he wasted no time in filming a sequel and releasing it in 2017. What a Wonderful Family! II continued the story of this crazy family, this time revolving around the death of grandfather Shuzo’s old classmate. The story beats are familiar, with the usual mix of pratfalls & laughs, melodrama and tears. And now the team are filming What A Wonderful Family! 3: My Wife, My Life for release in May this year. Who knows how many more of these are in the pipeline. The film has even had a Chinese remake in 2017. I can easily imagine this story in an Indian or Korean context and wouldn’t be surprised to see more remakes popping up in Asia.

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