We cannot choose our parents. When his mother dies in a freak accident, 3-year-old Akira is left in the care of his father, Yasu (Hiroshi Abe), a laborer working in a seaside town in western Japan.
Quick to anger and overly fond of his drink, Yasu isn’t exactly the ideal father: when his wife gives birth, he’s in the middle of a fight in the hospital hallway. However, having been raised an orphan himself, he is determined to give Akira a better education. And when he gets it wrong – which often happens – the local community steps in to help him, including his close friend Soun (Ken Yasuda) and restaurant owner Taeko (Hiroko Yakushimaru).
Yasu’s strenuous efforts to be good pop provide the main impetus for the decades-spanning drama of Takahisa Zeze’s “Tombi: Father and Son,” based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Kiyoshi Shigematsu. Beginning in 1963, the story continues until the end of the Showa era (1926-89), then continues with an epilogue that brings things up to date.
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It’s a period that inspires paroxysms of nostalgia in Japanese filmmakers, and Zeze is no exception. While “Tombi” isn’t as hazy as Takashi Yamazaki’s “Always: Sunset on Third Street” series (2005-12), still at the zenith of Showa sentimentality, it’s a close call.
If the story sounds familiar, that’s because it’s already been adapted for television twice, which is perhaps a better format for such a large narrative. Zeze’s version, based on a script by Takehiko Minato, looks like an NHK morning drama series inserted into a feature film.
Minato’s storyline uses a delicate structure, oscillating between a chronological retelling of Akira’s childhood and a single day in 1988, when Yasu travels to Tokyo for a reunion with his now estranged son (played as an adult by Takumi Kitamura). But this latest timeline takes forever to come together, with the result that you end up feeling every one of the film’s 139 minutes.
Zeze, usually a reliable pair of hands, succumbs to its worst tendencies here. The actors – few of whom sound convincing when speaking in the Hiroshima dialect of the story – give embarrassing performances. In the early scenes, when playing characters a few decades younger than their actual age, the effect is unintentionally campy.
At 57, Abe has the kind of physique most men his age would sell their kids for, but he looks ridiculous pretending to be a manly young male in his twenties. He clearly aims for the swaggering physique that Toshiro Mifune brought to Hiroshi Inagaki’s “Rickshaw Man” (1958), the film’s most obvious point of reference, but never seems to get past the mannerisms. The pathos of Inagaki’s film is also sorely lacking.
There’s the eerie scene that stands out, like a one-on-one in a bathhouse, with father and son in their birthday suits, or when Yasu redeems himself for giving the boy a black eye. teenager Akira while fighting (reminiscent of Edward Norton’s knockdown of a man in “Fight Club”).
However, the film has the same problem as its streamlined protagonist: it never stops to savor the moment. Overlong, overripe but oddly disappointing, it’s a dud from one of Japan’s most trusted purveyors of mid-range literary adaptations.
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