By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
A delicately balanced mix of emotional drama and disarming comedy, this exquisitely detailed (and unusually titled) film embodies everything that makes cinema such a joyous, affecting experience. With so many large scale blockbusters cramming theatres today, filled with technical wizardry but lacking any kind of genuine heart, Her Love Boils Bathwater shows that brilliant entertainment can be delivered on a much more modest budget.
The story centres around Futaba Sachino (Kie Miyazawa), an independent woman who has had to raise teenage daughter Azumi (Hana Sugisaki) on her own since her husband disappeared a year ago. Up until that fateful day, the family ran a local bathhouse, but the business has remained closed since. Azumi lacks self-confidence, and is regularly picked on at school by other students in her class. The two share a close relationship, which helps the awkward teenager get through her days at school.
When Futaba collapses at work, the resultant hospital tests reveal she has stage four cancer, with Futaba’s doctor informing the shocked patient that she has only a few months to live. Instead of falling into a state of depression, Futaba decides to use her remaining time wisely, and begins laying down a plan that will hopefully allow her family members to carry on once she’s gone.
Hiring private detective Takimoto (Taro Suruga), Futaba is able to track down her missing husband, Kazuhiro (Joe Odagiri), who has sired a daughter with another partner, a woman who has long since left him. The young girl, Ayuko (Aoi Ito), is wary of others, hesitant to trust anyone after her own mother abandoned her. Azumi is not only surprised to see her father again, but to then realise that she has a sister as well. Futaba insists that they will re-open the bathhouse, an endeavour that will hopefully unify this dysfunctional family. With Kazuhiro already knowing her fate, Futaba now waits for the right time to tell Azumi and Ayuko.
Her Love Boils Bathwater never once strikes a false note, always lovingly embracing each character and the individual journeys they must take. Futaba’s story could have wallowed in hysterical melodrama, but writer/director Ryota Nakano (who helmed the charming Capturing Dad) wants to see the positives that arise amongst the tragedy, and the way he weaves and connects these people who are disconnected or lost in some way is exceptional. Nakano cares about the characters he has created, and he wants the audience to care about them as well.
His nuanced screenplay is then brought to life by a perfectly chosen cast. Miyazawa is extraordinary as Futaba, making sure the determined mother remains a real human being, instead of becoming a clichéd symbol, and continues the strong work she delivered in films such as The Twilight Samurai (2002), Tony Takitani (2005), Hana (2006), Pale Moon (2014), Pieta In The Toilet (2015), and Too Young To Die (2016). Odagiri (Tokyo Tower: Mom and Me, And Sometimes Dad, Adrift in Tokyo, I Wish, The Great Passage) is deceptively terrific in his usual low-key manner, quietly exploring Kazuhiro’s flawed nature and good intentions.
Both Sugisaki (Pieta in the Toilet, and Takashi Miike’s upcoming samurai extravaganza, Blade of the Immortal) and Ito (whose only previous film credit is Sadako 2) are outstanding as Azumi and Ayuko respectively, taking on difficult roles that require a sure hand, and ensure that these children seem real and natural. Rounding out the fine cast is Suruga as Takimoto (incidentally, the child actress who plays his daughter is adorable), Tori Matsuzaka as hitchhiker Takumi, and Yukiko Shinohara as a waitress that Futaba encounters. Miyazawa and Sugisaki deservedly won statuettes for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress this year at the 40th Japanese Academy Awards.
Her Love Boils Bathwater is a gorgeously crafted film that purposefully encapsulates a genuinely moving human experience, one that is filled with a buoyant sense of humour and characters we were glad to spend time with for a little over two hours.