The nuts haven’t fallen too far from the tree in this enjoyable Japanese film about a family of contrarian knuckleheads. The only thing these folks can do is swim against the current. The only direction they know is uphill. And the only time they are content is when they are fighting with each other. They are their own worst enemies. Yet director Masahiro Kobayashi had me hoping for them all to have a happy ending.
My Two Sons
The 70-year-old patriarch Honma Nobuo (Ken Ogata) is a widower at loose ends. He is retired and his main activity is a long daily walk to a local fish hatchery. He trudges along with comic determination (accompanied by a Tomita-like rendition of Saint-Saëns’ Royal March of the Lion from Carnival of the Animals) across his snow-covered village on the far northern island of Hokkaido. His goal: to check on the progress of some salmon fry at a local fish hatchery. Along the way he composes haiku about how cold it is and what losers his sons are. Despite the cold, he is always sure to stop along the way for an ice cream cone. He is the king contrarian.
It’s been two years since his wife’s death and he wants to mark the anniversary with an official ceremony. He also wants his two sons to be there. Ryoichi (Kagawa Teruyuki) is the eldest son and is estranged from Nobu for leaving home to join a rock band. By all accounts Ryoichi is a terrible singer and the band sucks. Though not married, Ryoichi is about to become a father but hasn’t told Nobu. Indeed, he hasn’t spoken to him in years.
The second son, Yasuo (Hayashi Yasufumi), is still living at home. He is taking care of Nobuo and the family sake brewery. He resents being stuck at home as Nobu’s care-giver and hates running the family business. He has a girlfriend who wants to get married but Yasuo does not want to commit. Everyone constantly reminds Yasuo of how stupid he is. This follows the family tradition of “if you can’t say something bad about someone, don’t say anything at all.” Yasuo, for his part is rude in return and gives as good as he gets.
If the characters in Man Walking on Snow were simply full-time jerks, there’d not be much to the film. But Kobayashi has carefully added a kinder, gentler side to each one. It is as if they are such total contrarians that they have to be positive some of the time just to break the routine.
Nobuo worries about his sons and he worries about the salmon hatchlings (uh-oh, a plot device and Major Metaphor Alert). Ryoichi recognizes that he’s got to give up his dead-end music career to buckle down and become a responsible parent. Yasuo can’t bring himself to abandon his aged father to start a new life with his girlfriend. They all worry about each other and yet all they can do when they are together is bicker.
Kobayashi highlights this clash-of-opposites theme in Nobuo’s fixation with the salmon hatchlings. He worries about them in the confined hatchery tanks just has he feels as he has been confined to his sake business, his family and his small village. He wants the salmon to be free in the ocean just as he wishes to start a new life with the pretty — and much younger — woman who works at the hatchery. He dreams of going with her to Okinawa — the southernmost island in Japan and the place most unlike his own home. It seems the rice is always greener in the other paddy. But Nobuo can’t act on his dream because he is still duty-bound to his sons, and even his dead wife. He even tells the hatchlings they too have their duty and must return to Hokkaido to spawn.
Here we get an echo of Ryoichi’s concern for his unborn child and Yasuo’s commitment to his father. They are both sons of the father, like him and yet at odds with him. We also get hints that Ryoichi is specifically a copy of his father and Yasuo takes after their mother. It is a cycle of life that both repeats itself and is constantly at odds with itself. Perhaps the whole point of this exercise was Kobayashi showing us the yin yang of life, opposites in constant struggle, yet incomplete without their opposite.
All of that from some old crank walking miles in the snow to see baby fish. That’s a pretty good trick.
There are none.
Picture and Sound
Man Walking on Snow is a lovely film, beautifully shot, with a clever sound track — it’s primarily electronic, but the music shifts to acoustic instruments at one key sentimental moment to great effect.
How to Use This DVD
Resist the urge to give the family members some slap therapy... they’re all trying hard as they can.