Dad’s Lunch Box (Papa no Obento wa Sekai-Ichi, Japan 2017)

Midori and her Dad

The bento or lunchbox is at the centre of traditional Japanese food culture. The box filled with cold cooked food is something I remember from train trips in Japan way back in 1977, but it seems it is still there in school as the Japanese equivalent of the British ‘packed lunch’. This short (76 minutes) comedy melodrama focuses on a marriage break-up that leaves the salaryman father (Watanabe Toshimi) with the task of providing his daughter Midori (Takeda Rena) with a bento each day. He could send his daughter to the bread shop or use processed foods but he determines to do the job properly, perhaps to prove to himself and others that he can be a ‘proper’ parent.

Father (I don’t think he is named) is starting from scratch and his first efforts aren’t very good. Eventually he will get genuinely useful advice from a female colleague at work and he will improve. As his colleague points out, bento for teenage girls needs to be ‘cute’ and to look good. Midori eats her lunch with two friends who are quick to comment on what she is eating. There is only a slight narrative since much of the time is spent on a procedural study of Father’s attempts to shop, prepare and cook lunch for his daughter. The origin of the story is a tweet the ‘real life’ daughter posted at the end of her time at high school (i.e. from age 15 to 17), comparing photos of her father’s first and last attempts to make her daily bento. This went viral and attracted a film producer.

Midori at school. What’s in her bento today?

Though the narrative says nothing directly about the missing mother, who leaves in the pre-credit sequence, there is a story about the father which is carefully threaded through the main narrative. He confides in both a male and a female colleague at work and he becomes a regular customer of the woman who runs his local greengrocer. (In the current climate in the UK it is quite shocking that all the vegetables father buys are wrapped in plastic.) His bento preparation becomes his way of communicating with his daughter and he discovers that she responds to the messages he puts in with each meal. The main expressive element of the film is the music which unfortunately in the screening was ear-splittingly loud. Some of the more melancholic music was fine but much of it was pop music which at the volume played was unbearable and on one occasion we had a voiceover on top of the music. I think the excess of music possibly shows a lack of faith in the narrative. The film’s credits on IMDb suggest that apart from Takeda Rena as Midori, the rest of the cast and all the crew had little or no previous experience.

I was surprised to see that the film was released theatrically in Japan and Taiwan. I would have guessed that it would have been made for TV. Apart from the short length, the shooting style is mainly that of a TV soap with high-key lighting. The image itself also seemed to be rather ‘washed out’ (which meant that the food isn’t as visually striking as it might have been). Having said that, I enjoyed this gentle comedy with its feelgood narrative. As this helpful review comments, Midori doesn’t seem to suffer any kind of stigma at school because of her single parent family (whereas in the 1990s it still seemed to be the cause of social criticism). Food preparation and presentation is very important in Japan and there have been several notable films placing it at the centre of narratives (see, for example, the classic Tampopo (1985). Dad’s Lunchbox is an interesting new genre mix with food, family comedy-drama and high school. Thanks again, Japan Foundation.

Here’s a trailer with English subs (possibly made for Taiwan or Hong Kong distribution?)

3 comments

  1. John Hall

    An enjoyable, if rather slight narrative, when they got the subtitles to work finally after a good twenty minutes had elapsed. I thought the actress playing Midori was very good. Her father was identified as Mr Otsu by his companions at work. Some of the more minor roles may have been padded out, not least the quickly vanishing Mother and Midori’s two schoolmates who showed no distinguishing features. Still, a charming light comedy that, if nothing else, demonstrated how diverse this short season of Japanese cinema has been. I preferred Yurikogoro, however, which was very different.

    • Roy Stafford

      I must have missed you at the screening. Yes, I did see the family name in the subs but I didn’t write it down. I was distracted by the discussion about his behaviour at work as being ‘antsy’ which clashed with the surname. What did you think of Yurigokoro then?

      • John Hall

        I saw ‘Yurogokoro’ at Home several weeks ago. It was my first foray into this short Japanese festival and the most rewarding in terms of the complex characters and elaborate storyline depicted. It came on a bit like ‘Henry, Portrait Of a Serial Killer’ at first with random and often grotesque slayings then resolving into a disturbed boy’s reunion with a more disturbed mother. It had its black comedy elements too, such as when the young man goes to retrieve his girlfriend from the Yakuza and has to steel himself to probably fight them, for which he is woefully unprepared, but he walks into the remains of a recent bloodbath. I enjoyed it immensely.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.