Human relationships are a trial-and-error obstacle course people start navigating from childhood whether with friends made at school, romances begun and ended, to the co-workers with whom alliances, rivalries, or the aforementioned are also made or lost. These relationships are far more complex, however, when family is involved. Though family members can be as exasperating or incorrigible as any person encountered in life, the sense of duty, responsibility, and fealty to family is persuasive as well as ubiquitous. One family’s relationship is the focus of Tokiwa Shiro’s remarkable debut feature which breaths new life into the family drama while still obviously being informed by the works of masters such as Ozu and Naruse. The movie opens with Toda Erika and Sometani Shota eating ramen in a dark place. Where they are is unknown and their conversation suggests the ramen is sub-par but the best option given the hour. Before long, it is revealed they are dining at a hospital commissary that has–and thanks to them–is still waiting to close. Hurriedly finishing their meal (that’s not to say they finished their ramen), the two leave and we learn why the brother and sister are at the hospital. Two important concepts are introduced in this scene. One is Tokiwa’s understated storytelling; the situation is not concretely explained, but naturally reveals itself as it progresses. Second is the pivotal role food plays in the story.
Occuring over the long hours the Azuma family hold a traditional evening wake for their deceased father (nothing is being spoiled here) prior to his cremation the following day, the story itself spans the decades in their lives. During the course of the evening, events pivotal to the members’ memory are re-examined via the perspectives of the elder son (Kubozuka Yosuke), the eldest daughter (Toda), the youngest son (Sometani), and their mother (Saito Yuki). Things unknown, things unsaid, things not realized at one time in the past are revealed giving new meaning to the present and fresh understanding of what had previously been unbeknownst to one another. The obvious subtext is the evolving dynamics between parent and child, and among siblings to a certain degree, as adulthood prompts details about one another to be noticed or confessed. This does not necessarily mean immediate acceptance or comprehension of new revelations, but as they themselves become parents, children too will come to acknowledge if not appreciate some of the quandaries facing parenthood or marriage from which their parents may have shielded them. In a broader sense, the movie speaks to the human experience of first being a supporting player in the story of one’s parents then becoming the central figure of one’s own story as adults. Key to how this “passing of the baton” comes into play is the family meal. Journeys into the Azuma’s past are linked to dishes associated with a specific time in their lives which are cooked and served during the wake. As modern-day schedules also splinter Japan’s nuclear family to eat together less often, meals spent with family around home cooked dishes (by either father, mother, or even children in the case of this movie) are given extraordinary magnitude in the movie as the touchstones for family interaction, good or ill. However, this is not a “foodie” movie. These meals are family fare; home cooked dishes which give each and every family their own flavor (pun unintended). Whether it is a simple fried egg, preference for red or white miso, pan pizza, or the varied subtleties of sukiyaki, each provides the emotional impetus propelling the family’s evolving relationship and importance to the movie’s title.
At the heart of the story’s effectiveness is the impeccable structure of Tokiwa’s original script (yes, this is not an adaptation of a novel, comic, web series, etc.). Flashbacks must guide the viewer into the Azuma family’s past, but their beautifully timed placement within the story give shape to those unknown or unspoken events and personal emotions which ultimately redefine present-day notions. Tokiwa doesn’t so much peel away the layers obfuscating the truth about the Azuma family, but instead carefully brushes away the years of residue covering the beauty of their familial bond. By subverting the familiar framework of “skeletons in the closet” movies the payoffs for each of the characters also results in equal payoffs for the audience who organically become participants of the evening; perhaps even family members. Furthermore, by rendering a family not wholly tied by blood, Tokiwa draws a portrait of the the 21st century family. If blood relations are complicated, the relations between people suddenly thrown together via re-marriage are moreso. Thankfully, Tokiwa has also veered away from modern Japanese cinema’s propensity for verbose dialogue. The movie shows rather than tells–the understated storytelling mentioned earlier. Viewers must realize what is happening for themselves thus every smile, laugh, sob, or tear is genuinely earned. Free of mouthfuls of lines to utter, the actors are more nuanced with their actions and expressions therefore rendering living, breathing people. Outstanding performances abound, but special mention must be given to Toda, Mori Nana who plays Toda’s character as a young girl, Nagase Masatoshi, and Kubozuka whose presence essentially shifts the tone of the movie’s closing act.
Successfully employing honest, unpretentious storytelling and crafting heartfelt performances, The First Supper is–and it must be stressed again–a remarkable debut feature by Tokiwa. The movie he has patiently worked hard to realize over many years is a marvelously rendered, poignant unwinding and refastening of family ties that elevates the genre.
Thanks to an industry friend, I was invited to view the movie back in May at a pre-screening for the production’s inner circle and industry guests held at Imagica, the principal post-production facility employed by majors studios and independent films alike. This was my first time to watch a movie in their screening theater, though I have been there many years ago to check the subtitles for a Kitamura Ryuhei movie in one of their smaller screening rooms. The theater was by far larger than the screening rooms at Shochiku and Kinohaus. In attendance were actresses Mori Nana and Hyunri who has a small but important role in the story. As is usually the case, this was their first time viewing the movie in its entirety since wrapping of principal photography. Both addressed the attendees at Tokiwa’s behest, but Hyunri in particular had been so moved she teared up as she spoke. Afterward, I had the pleasure of meeting Tokiwa, producer Moriya Takeshi, and the team tasked with promoting the movie. They were kind enough to provide me with the materials used in the writing of this article. I certainly look forward to whatever story Tokiwa tells next and I hope to speak with him again and perhaps publish an interview on Indievisual sometime in the future.
The First Supper opens in Japan on November 1st. If you’re interested in screening the movie at your event, please contact me via Facebook or Instagram (both @indievisualhq) and I can help put you in touch with the print source.
Notes on the Margin
–– The movie first began as a concept producer Sugiyama Mai took to Tokiwa in December 2012 for a movie dealing with step families.
–– Tokiwa completed the script in 2014 and used as a basis his feelings upon going through the process of his father being diagnosed with cancer and subsequently passing, and the funeral thereafter.
–– Sometani was the first cast member to commit to the project and remained attached due to his belief in the strength of the script despite the years it took to begin filming. The impressive A-list cast for this first time feature also commited to the project based solely on their belief in the script’s potential.
–– Principal photography began in February 2018 and was split into two parts: winter and summer based on the past and present-day sections of the story. The summer portion of photography began in June.
–– Principal photography concluded in July with the filming of the scene between Nagase and Kubozuka involving sukiyaki. The shoot totalled 33 days.
–– Tokiwa employed a very collaborative style of directing, often discussing and shaping scenes with the actors on set, on the day. Sometani commented his collaborative “ego-free” approach despite being the screenwriter was very pleasant.