Review: The Asadas

The true story of photographer Masashi Asada and his Mie Prefecture family, who were and presumably still are the main subject of his award-winning pictures, provides such a smooth dramatic arc for a movie that early on you begin to wonder how much was elided. As played by Kazunari Ninomiya, Asada is an amiable iconoclast, someone who is passionate about his art but not particularly intent on the work involved. His success is more or less accidental since he doesn’t actively apply himself to getting his photographs out there, and the viewer develops the feeling that he relies on his family for subject matter simply because it’s easier. Director Ryota Nakano depicts Masashi’s progress as a creative soul with the kind of comic aloofness you’d expect from someone like Robert Zemeckis, if we were to use a Hollywood cognate. If that seems like a cheap reductionist rhetorical gambit, it’s important to note that the aforementioned dramatic arc was something that Hollywood perfected in its heyday, if not outright invented. 

So Masashi’s mildly antisocial bona fides are conveyed by his tattoos and, reactively, by his brother Yukihiro’s (Satoshi Tsumabuki) relentlessly disapproving comments. Yukihiro is the killjoy, the scold who walks the straight and narrow and had little confidence in Masashi’s ability to make a living from his art. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t love him. His parents (Jun Fubuki, Mitsuru Hirata), on the other hand, couldn’t care less about his putaro attitude, and love getting dressed up as gangsters and firefighters and sick people for his staged tableaux. Predictably, publishers of photo books — a rarefied but seemingly active subsection of the Tokyo publishing business — aren’t interested in “family photos” and it falls to an equally iconoclastic small press to finally bring out his book, which is simply called “Asadake” (The Asada Family). It sells next to nothing, but it does win a prestigious award, so you could say that Masashi is on his way, even if he relies on his girlfriend, Wakana (Haru Kuroki), for financial support.

But if his book isn’t exactly flying off shelves, it does give him a certain rep, and he starts a niche business taking photographs of other families at their request. This activity takes him all over Japan and eventually to Fukushima, where he makes friends. When the quake and tsunami strike, he rushes back to see how he can help, and eventually gets caught up in a project to reunite families with the photos and albums they lost in the flood.

The completion of Masashi’s journey not only as a photographer but also as a character worthy of cinematic recognition is so airtight that the movie as a whole is stifling. While there are a few well-staged scenes in Fukushima involving victims and loss that are emotionally affecting, overall the story feels as safe as milk. It’s an extremely comforting two hours in that you never once sense that, as a viewer, you will be confronted with anything that could be described as disturbing. Families are wonderful things, of course, but they make better movie subjects when there’s a bit of friction. 

In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011).

The Asadas home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 “Asadake”Seisaku Iinkai

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