What no one will tell you about Japanese cinema is that it measures success not just in ticket sales, but tears shed. This is a lie, but there’s possibly a reason that the “cancer film” is a genre all of its own in the nation. Many years, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a movie that doesn’t have feature the illness in some form; you can be cruising along and then in the last twenty minutes or so a character has to go home because his father is sick. Her Love Boils Bathwater is an exemplar of the genre in one of its purest forms: we know of the cancer almost from the beginning, and we know that there is no hope for a cure. Everything that comes after this set up, however, gives the film the flavour that sets it apart from the rest of the weepies.
After single mother Futaba Kono (Rie Miyazawa, JFF 2015’s Pieta in the Toilet) is diagnosed with stage-four cancer, she decides to track down her estranged husband Kazuhiro (Joe Odagiri, JFF 2017’s Over the Fence and Midnight Diner 2) and force him to reopen the family bathhouse and help take care of their teenaged daughter Azumi (Hana Sugisaki, Blade of the Immortal).
Her Love Boils Bathwater is the sort of film that relies entirely upon the strength of its lead to support it, because even if it is an ensemble film, Futaba has to be the tentpole. Miyazawa is more than capable, lending credibility to a woman who is almost unreasonably angelic in her generosity of spirit. Writer/director Ryōta Nakano (Capturing Dad, also a cancer film) likes to layer on complications, and Miyazawa rolls with them in a way that could feel outlandish in the hands of almost anyone else.
Where Nakano’s script might feel dangerously overstuffed on occasion, his direction does not tend towards the melodramatic. Often he provides the punch before he provides the motivation, and his reversal of expectation keeps audiences not guessing so much as consistently intrigued; similarly, Nakano’s sense of priority is exacting, and elements are discarded as soon as they’re no longer needed.
While Miyazawa is in a league of her own, Odagiri, Sugisaki and Aoi Ito (Sadako 3D 2) as young ringer Ayuko are ample support. Odagiri’s lackadaisical nature somehow forgives his absence (the papering over of which is the film’s single most outlandish development), and Sugisaki grows multiple dimensions as it becomes clear that the film is not about her character; these actors are constantly able to surprise without drawing solely on the script’s twists.
Her Love Boils Bathwater very firmly belongs to its genre, but it innovates and expands on its hallmarks in such a way that it is able to sufficiently stand out. You know exactly where Her Love Boils Bathwater is going, but not how it’s going to take you there. Miyazawa ensures that the audience and her family both feel loved and appreciated well before her time with us is up.
Her Love Boils Bathwater is screening in Australia as part of the Japanese Film Festival, which tours the country between October 13 and December 3, 2017.
Directed by: Ryōta Nakano.
Starring: Rie Miyazawa, Joe Odagiri, Hana Sugisaki, Tori Matsuzaka, Aoi Itō, Yukiko Shinohara and Tarō Suruga.