Three generations of the Hirata family live under one roof. On the surface, they seem like the perfect family but seemingly out of the blue, Tomiko Hirata, the grandmother, announces that she wants a divorce from her husband, Shuzo. These decision throws the entire family into complete disarray and causes a lot of underlying problems to bubble to the surface.
I’m not sure what drove my interest in seeing “What a Wonderful Family!” from Yoji Yamada — while we rarely cover animated movies for Film Bizarro we almost never cover family-comedies. But this year’s Fantasia was about trying new things! Watching different movies to discuss, and given Yoji Yamada’s extensive history of writing and directing comedy films, “What a Wonderful Family!” seemed like a sure bet. However, this has unintentionally become one of the most paradoxical viewing experiences for me in recent memory. I can’t tell if I loved the schmaltzy goodness of “What a Wonderful Family!” that warmed the cockles of my heart. Or if I find it so frustrating and irritating to a point that I think it's a terrible movie.
“What a Wonderful Family!” in general is a weird viewing experience if you’re familiar with Yoji Yamada’s filmography. Roughly 3-4 years ago, Yamada took on the difficult task of remaking the world renowned classic “Tokyo Story” with “Tokyo Family”. His version was met with a lukewarm response, but in my opinion, he did a respectable job of updating Yasujirō Ozu and Kōgo Noda’s story without losing the focus of what made “Tokyo Story” such a special movie. “Tokyo Family” wasn't spectacular by any means but it did what it needed to do relatively well while respecting the source material.
Now what makes “What a Wonderful Family!” weird is that Yamada uses the exact same cast from “Tokyo Family” (which in itself isn’t a bad thing since the cast was and still is fantastic) and tells a similar story — a modern Japanese family fractioning off. Except the difference being that Yamada’s newest film is driven by comedy rather that social drama. Because of the cast and similar concept, “What a Wonderful Family!” comes off as a remake itself sometimes or some bizarre alternate cut of “Tokyo Family” because people said it was too depressing. It was hard to shake off that feeling but, even so, if someone were to ask me what’s a good family-comedy movie that anybody could enjoy, I would recommend “What a Wonderful Family!”.
Perhaps it’s because of 26 years Yamada spent directing the Tora-san film series, but “What a Wonderful Family!” manages to hit every beat of family movie with surgical precision. The movie knows exactly when to be funny, whether it be in the form of dialogue, a performance, or even a bit of prop work. The movie also knows when to take itself seriously and allow the more dramatic and heartfelt moments come through for the viewer. It was astonishing to see how smoothly this film ran; while there is a through-line that's serious in tone about how a family responds to the news of divorce, the movie never becomes too heavy nor does it let the comedy lessen the dramatic parts. Even when the movie gets down right silly, Yamada maintains a proportional balance. It’s a brilliant mix of comedy and drama that won’t cause a viewer to feel bad when they laugh, but still retains that emotional impact when Kazuko Yoshiyuki delivers an incredibly devastating speech about the erosion of love.
That’s where I have a problem with “What a Wonderful Family!” though. In a moment of brutal honesty, Yoshiyuki’s character discusses how she could possibly decide to divorce her husband at their age. It’s a scene that can knock the wind out of the viewer because of the reality in her words that anyone, not just the characters, can understand. It’s to a point that it seems like “What a Wonderful Family!” is going to have a similar downbeat ending that “Tokyo Family” had. For some reason though, the movie forces in a happy ending — assumedly to be contrarian to Yamada’s former film — that undermines the characters and destroys the obvious and natural ending for “What a Wonderful Family!”. Instead of a satisfying conclusion, you’re left perplexed over the sudden (and it is sudden) change in direction, rather than leaving a viewer with a case of the warm-fuzzes that the film so desperately wants to.
On one hand, I can understand why they chose to go with a more upbeat ending. Outside of Yoshiyuki’s speech, and an equally hard-hitting moment from Yui Natsukawa in the end, “What a Wonderful Family!” is relatively light-hearted, even with the dramatic elements. Then again, that kind of ending could have been achieved without being forced and isn’t insulting to the characters and the audience. Either a happy or bitter tone would have worked in the finale of the movie but re-editing and restructuring would have been needed, but instead, the audience is treated with an unnatural ending. An ending where characters go unchanged and puts everything back to where it was in the beginning — where characters were living disillusioned lives.
I’ll concede to the fact that I might be reading a bit too much into the ending and taking it more personal than I should, but I can’t help it. “What a Wonderful Family!” becomes a prime example of artificial storytelling; even if the movie is nothing more than simple family-entertainment, there’s a natural path that the story should take. Instead, the people behind the film try to vere off onto a different path when it’s far too late and results in a contrived ending. And it’s a shame that a bad ending creates such a negative impact on an otherwise funny and endearing movie about a modern family.