REVIEW: Household X
Running time: 88 min.
Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman
“Household X” opens with a handheld shot of a family photograph – a mother, a father and their son. Perhaps it’s held a little too long in the unsteady gaze of the camera’s lens, but serves as a perfect metaphor for the shaky and unstable foundation that holds this particular Japanese family together. We will only see the family together again in a single frame in the closing shot of the movie. By then, the tragedy of contemporary alienation that director Koki Yoshida has committed so well to the screen will have covered some familiar territory, but with a clear hard eye and technical and emotional finesse that moves “Household X” into the profound territory of the Dardenne brothers or Chantal Akerman.
The story is pretty simple. Michiko (who’s name we only learn about three quarters of the way into the movie), housewife and mother, silently and alone endures a daily routine of preparing dinner for her husband, always coming home late from work, and son, also emotionally absent when coming home from his shit work temporary jobs. Her only interaction, if you can call it that, with others happens when she takes out the garbage or when she visits a friend who’s only concern is getting a sale for her son. Michiko obsessively cleans and arranges the dining room table, wanders around the house, restlessly tries to sleep and descends into bulimic excess, secretly gorging on store-bought bentos and prepared food and purging herself.
Her husband, Kenichi spends his extra-long days, ostensibly as the go-to guy in the office for computer problems. He’s way over his head, obviously unknowing and inept. When he’s not absently staring at his computer monitor, not even looking busy, but filling space, he’s trying to bone up on his lack of computer savvy with books. He knows he’s on the short-timers list at his company. His desperate overcompensation finds him hanging at his desk, not leaving until he’s the last one in the office.
The son, Hiroaki, remains a 20-something enigma, working, eating and sleeping through life. He’s aimless, uncommunicative and largely angry at the bad hand he’s been dealt.
Household X follows these disparate lives with a series of telling and complementary images and a slowly compounding trajectory that builds a seamless tapestry of alienation and crises. Through the domgma-90 style handheld shakiness there’s not a wasted shot in the film.
For example, early on, Michiko gets conned into buying a water cooler. We see her pouring her last glass of tap water and watering plants on the balcony. The water cooler is installed. She offers some water, not from the cooler, to the salesman, an old classmate of her son. Later, when her son comes home, he can only remark on the frivolity of buying the cooler. The husband returns later, dumbfounded as he pours himself a drink of water. As the film progresses, the cooler will show up again, a fine flowering of mold and muck illuminated in the glass jar. The plans will be shown, dead. And the son will meet up with his old buddy, the only bit of conversation being about the cooler. By then, Michiko is well on the way to a breakdown, Kenichi well on the way to being out of work.
In contrast, Hiroaki, has just completed a job delivering some furniture. As he leaves he’s asked to take a snapshot of the happy (?) family where he’s delivered the goods. Later his boss gives him a small shout out for the good work he’s done.
Despite the obsessive slit-your-wrist downbeat trajectory of the tale, there are some minimal moments of light, as when Kenichi gets invited to go out drinking by another loser office mate to the most depressing and banal of capsule hotels – with a white walled fluorescent-lit cafeteria when the guys go to drink. He shows a little mettle when he escapes from what will surely be one of the worst nights of his life and walks all night back home. He returns home only to see Michiko waking up. They exchange some flat words and he escapes back to work, missing out on a potential moment of connection. Granted the light is dim, at best.
When Michiko finally freaks and disappears, the father and the son – perhaps only because of obligation – set out to find her. Kenichi finally finds her passed out in a booth of a chain restaurant. It’s as if he knew she would be there, that this had all happened before. The final shot finds them reunited within the frame, a telephoto shot of the husband and wife in the car, their son in the foreground on his bicycle. The screen shows them moving forward, yet trapped in the flatness of the shot.
The trio of actors, though rarely ever in the same frame together, manifest a family’s disintegration, even as they strangely hold on. Kaho Minami is relentlessly focused as Michoko, caught solely in a pathological reaction to events outside of her control. Taguchi Tomorowo, who may be a bit better known for being the main character of “Tetsuo” and fronting the punk band Bachikaburi inhabits Kenichi with sensitivity and the last vestiges of humanity in a lost and broken man. Tomohiro Kaku holds it close as Hiroaki.
Koki Yoshida takes a tale similar to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s overwrought “Tokyo Story” and cuts it to the bone with resonance, compassion, intelligence and style. Following in the steps of “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” and “Why Does Herr R Run Amok?,” Yoshida takes the classic parable, contemporizes it without being preachy, demonstrating a monumental talent.
Originally published in J-Film Pow-Wow, Sunday, August 21, 2011