Ginko’s younger brother Tetsuro, a failed comedian, is the oddball of the family. Embarrassing, loud and plain inappropriate at times causes Ginko to disown him. The two reunite when she discovers Tetsuro is terminally ill. Tetsuro’s impending death marks the beginning of love and toleration.
Veteran director Yoji Yamada’s About Her Brother (also known in English as Younger Brother) is the second film in this year’s Japanese Film Festival to revolve around three generations of women, but it stands in stylistic contrast to the other film, Flowers. Saying exactly what this film’s style is proves something of a challenge, however, since Yamada (best known in Australia for his stately samurai films The Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade) and his co-screenwriter Emiko Hiramatsu appear unable to make up their minds.
Starting out as a farce about a middle-aged widow’s irresponsible younger brother, the film morphs into a family soap opera and finally ends up as a brazen send-for-more-handkerchiefs number. Pity, because the comic set-piece that introduces the brother as a drunken guest at his niece’s wedding reception is a knockabout comic delight. There’s nothing wrong with subverting audience expectations – indeed it’s a principle that many fine directors use to their advantage – but to pull it off the filmmaker needs to take the viewer to a more interesting place, something Yamada signally fails to do.
Suburban pharmicist Ginko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) has raised her teenage daughter Koharu (Yu Aoi) alone following the early death of her husband, aided only by her now infirm mother. When the women plan Koharu’s wedding – she’s marrying a young doctor – it looks initially as if the girl’s disreputable uncle, Tetsuro (Tsurube Shofukutei), won’t be attending; he’s been out of contact for years. But at the hotel reception the errant relative turns up unexpectedly, causing havoc before he’s even entered the dining area and quickly turning the formal celebration into a shemozzle.
Yamada handles the comedy with enough skill to make the viewer look forward to further mirthful adventures with Tetsuro. Instead it takes a strange turn, with major events introduced into the story at random, a technique more suited to long-form teledrama than feature film.
As the brother – a failed actor making ends meet by frying octopus – spends time with the family, Yamada decides to change perspective and show him as less the engaging fool we thought we were going to get to know, but a deeply selfish character who’s a pain in the backside.
A sub-plot about the swift collapse of Koharu’s marriage is poorly handled (her busy husband refuses to talk to her and demands they communicate via memo – yes, really), and her budding romance with a handsome young carpenter does nothing to amplify the film’s central relationships. When news comes that one of the film’s major players is in hospital, the stage is set for Terms of Endearment – the Japanese remake.
Still, for all its narrative failings, this more than two hours long film is undeniably visually strong. As his samurai hits showed, there’s never any question that Yamada knows how to frame his shots using every centimetre of the wide-screen format.