A Typical Japanese Family Drama

in IFF Rotterdam 2024

by Panagiotis Kotzathanasis

Winner of the Tiger Award in this year’s IFFR, and one of the most touching moments of the whole festival, with the entire cast and crew on stage, Toshihiko Tanaka’s Rei (2024) is a typical Japanese family drama, which stands out due to its cinematography, but also fosters a number of the inherent issues of the local movie industry.

The kanji character “Rei” has no direct meaning in itself, but can have a number of meanings, when combined with other characters, with the protagonists of the movie actually bolstering an overall demeanor that mirrors that of the kanji. 30-something company employee Hikari, eventually finds meaning when, after attending a stage play with her best friend, Asami, she is impressed by the quality of the poster, and begins searching for the particular landscape photographer. The man in question is a deaf landscape photographer, Mato, who has alienated his family, essentially living disconnected from the rest of the world. The two soon connect as Hikari asks him to take a picture of her as part of a landscape, but the monotony of their lives is not the only thing that is disrupted. In the meantime, Asami also has problems of her own, as her young daughter seems to be on the spectrum, and her husband, Kohei, is not particularly eager to help, not to mention the fact that he betrays her. Daisuke, Mato’s brother is quite angry at his brother, with the two of them clashing during their mother’s funeral.

The narrative also deals with single motherhood, particularly in the case of handicapped children, repressed homosexuality, grief, regret and the alienations that seem to torment life in Japan (to say the least). It is also here that one of the movie’s biggest faults appears, as there are too many things happening to the many characters that are part of the story, not to mention that the story follows too many paths. On the other hand, individually, all arcs are quite interesting, while the connection is at least partly well-presented, probably the movie’s best narrative trait. However, as the film gets from the second hour mark and onwards until the ending of its whooping 189 minutes, the quality definitely deteriorates. Combined with the utterly melodramatic finale, the last part definitely emerges as the weakest here, in terms of narrative.

At the same time, Yoshihito Nakashima, Erika Arai, Yusuke Soramura and Akio Ikeda’s cinematography is definitely the best trait of the whole movie, both in the presentation of the various interiors and Mato’s photography. This aspect finds its apogee in the finale, with the fully snowed setting being quite impressive to watch, intensifying the drama that permeates the story. Toshihiko Tanaka’s own editing results in an expected slow pace that fits the aesthetics of the story, but it becomes quite evident that the movie would benefit from extensive trimming.

As such, it is worth considering whether the movie’s faults outweigh its merits, with both abundantly present. In that regard, I have to say that the latter predominate, making the movie quite rewarding for the patient viewer.


Panagiotis Kotzathanasis
Edited by Ela Bittencourt