Jigyaku no Uta, 2007
Based upon the popular serialised manga Jigyaku no Uta from Yoshiie Gouda, Happily Ever After condenses the tale of the strip’s most famously dysfunctional figures, Isao Hayama and Yukie Morita. Successful mainstream director Yukihiko Tsutsumi tackles a darkly comic tale which ponders over what we consider to be true happiness.
Hiroshi Abe and Miki Nakatani star as Isao and Yukie, a not-so-doting couple on the surface it seems. Yukie grafts at a struggling ramen shop and is adored by her boss (Kenichi Endo), who is just waiting for the perfect time to ask for her hand in marriage. But, for all her hard work, come every pay day she sees her earnings going straight to her ex-yakuza hubby so that he can while away his time at the local pachinko parlour. Moreover, Isao rarely shows his affection toward his wife and suffers from a terrible temper, which usually sees him taking out his rage on the dinner table – of which Yukie‘s neighbouring aunt (Maki Carousel) happily documents. Yet despite his abrasive personality, Yukie continues to love Isao more and more each day. You see, he once saved her from self-destruction several years ago when she fled to a new city after the arrest of her criminal father (Toshiyuki Nishida). 18 years since his arrest, Yukie’s dad is now free and decides to visit his only child, only to find her holed up with this good for nothing bum. The real trial now begins as Yukie and Isao find themselves having to come to terms with some drastic changes in their lives.
Yukihiko Tsutsumi and Hiroshi Abe have enjoyed a considerably productive relationship over the course of the past fifteen years or so, beginning with the hugely successful television drama Trick. Created by Tsutsumi himself in 2000, it ran for three series, spawned four theatrical movies and three feature-length Shinsaku TV specials, which has seen Hiroshi steadily go on to become one of the most commanding actors working in Japan today, effortlessly juggling his time between television and movie appearances. In 2006 he cameoed for Tsutsumi’s videogame adaptation Forbidden Siren and then in 2007 they teamed up twice, firstly with the actor taking top honours in the absurdly cheesy fantasy romp Taitei no Ken, and then following up with the considerably dialled down comedy/drama Happily Ever After.
And it’s a strange one to pin down indeed. Distinctly a film literally of two halves, it explores the characters of Isao and Yukie through a gradually shifting tone, which goes from darkly comic to seriously poignant. While under the surface Tsutsumi offers very little that we haven’t already seen before in Japanese cinema, with a central theme which promptly asks “what is true happiness?”, it’s the unorthodox manner in which events unfold that leaves the piece rather intriguing, even if it might lack a little cohesiveness as a result. None would be truer than the way in which the director explores his central figures, as dividing equal time between the pair seems to be more of an arduous task than one might expect. The film never quite gets to the heart of understanding all of it’s characters, particularly that of Isao who is arguably the most ambiguous character here, as much of the second portion focuses primarily on Yukie’s ropey adolescence and the dubious choices she had made well into womanhood. Perhaps for all intents we needn’t really know every single little thing that makes our protagonists tick; these people are never depicted as being saints who live perfect lives, and that’s naturally a key in understanding the points that the film is trying to illustrate. In fact Tsutsumi does offer some interest in a spot of role reversal which stems from his character’s troublesome pasts, which leads to an inevitably upbeat conclusion, with the director’s message ringing loud over tears of joy.
Above all, however, it’s real key to enjoyment is the impressive cast, who seem to embody their cartoon counterparts tremendously well. Miki Nakatani follows up her award-winning turn in the thematically similar Memories of Matsuko, with yet another noted performance (nominee at the 2008 Japanese Academy Awards) as the ever-so-trying Yukie. The film rests itself firmly on her shoulders, with Tsutsumi asking of us to take a huge leap of faith in discovering Yukie’s past and indeed seeing her reach a kind of spiritual awakening. Nakitani takes it all in her stride, channelling plenty of emotion and once more skilfully ensuring that we laugh and cry with her at all the right beats. Hiroshi Abe, by complete contrast, is left the more complex task of conveying Isao’s emotions through subtle facial mannerisms. The seemingly neer-do-well is a man of very few words, whose idea of settling a problem is by head-butting the nearest person to him. Hiroshi’s timing is impeccable for all his stoicism, managing to make us laugh in anticipation of the next table-flipping incident whenever the wrong word is uttered, or an unavoidable moment occurs. Though he shouldn’t ordinarily be a likeable individual, what with his gambling addiction, general bumming around and a lack of romanticism toward Yukie, he never for an instant leaves the viewer with the impression that he loves her any less than the day he first set eyes on her, and it’s during the moments in which he violently comes to her defence – perhaps the only way he knows how to convey his love – that we can come away feeling quite proud of him.
Tertiary support is also fabulous, with the ever delightful Toshiyuki Nishida – though slightly underused here – helping to flesh out an awkward father/daughter relationship and Kenichi Endo entertaining us through Ishiya’s pitiable acts of unrequited love. These serve to break a little tension between some of the more dramatic overtones and shows Tsutsumi for his love of quirky comedy, which he often infuses in his lighter works.
Happily Ever After won’t claim to be anything truly original; after all it knowingly riffs off standard clichés as it is and culminates with an all-too-familiar message. However, Yukihiko Tsutsumi does well though to hit most of his marks, triumphing over minor imperfections with his energetic style of film making and a cast on hand that is simply too good to pass up.