In this writer’s view, Miwa Nishikawa is the leading Japanese director of her generation, full stop. Given her long list of awards, as well as her themes since debuting in 2003 with this dark family comedy, the qualifier “female” is both unneeded and misleading.
Unlike fellow directors Naoko Ogigami and Naomi Kawase, Nishikawa has mostly shied away from subjects that might be considered woman-centric. Instead of a quirky cat lady renting her felines to the lonely (Ogigami’s 2012 Rent-a-Cat) or a pregnant woman still mourning the long-ago loss of a son (Kawase’s 2003 Shara), Nishikawa’s typical protagonist is a fraud of one sort or another, such as the phoney physician in Dear Doctor (2009), the con artist couple in Dreams for Sale (2012) or the celebrity novelist who fakes tears for his dead wife in her latest, The Long Excuse (2016).
Her fascination with the many ways people deceive themselves and others is also evident in Wild Berries, a film about a seemingly average middle-class family whose deceptions turn destructive. Based, like all her films, on her own script, Wild Berries reveals its secrets in finely plotted stages while hinting from the beginning that not all about the Akechi clan is what it appears.
The father (Sei Hiraizumi) poses as a hard-working salaryman, but has lost his job and is now deep in debt having borrowed to maintain his gainfully employed façade. The mother (Naoko Otani) projects a smiling front while caring for her senile father-in-law (Matsunosuke Shofukutei), but secretly longs for the demise of her gibbering, food-gobbling burden. Meanwhile, estranged son Shuji (Hiroyuki Miyasako) impersonates a mourner at funerals – and makes off with envelopes of condolence money.
The only straight arrow is daughter Tomoko (Miho Tsumiki), a primary school teacher who primly lectures her young charges on the evils of fibbing. When her rich boyfriend (Toru Tezuka) raves about her family’s simple virtues after his first visit, however, she does not disabuse him. Then grandad dies, Shuji returns, dad’s debts surface, mum’s brave front crumbles, and Tomoko’s boyfriend, appalled by the truth, does a disappearing act.
This may sound like the stuff of farce, but the film, save for occasional eruptions of absurdity, keeps it real. That is, its ironies are bitter and the fates of certain characters are harsh – and well deserved. Even so, the ending delivers, if not hope, a well-prepared epiphany that rings chillingly true. However you define “truth”.
Wild Berries will be screened on October 24 and 27 at Broadway Cinematheque, in Yau Ma Tei, as part of the “Director in Focus: Miwa Nishikawa” section of the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. Nishikawa will meet the audience at the October 24 screening.