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The minute the film started with the scene of a mother and daughter chatting and cooking together in the kitchen, I found myself perceptibly leaning back in my seat, feeling this wave of assurace and comfort putting myself in the hands of this director for the next couple of hours. Something about the effortlessness of that scene, the way the banter is both familiar at one level and yet unfamiliar in the specifics, just made me smile and thankfully the rest of the movie really maintained the tone that this scene sets up.

The film is inevitably reminiscent of Tokyo Story and yet it feels modern and current. It’s set entirely during the course of a single day and is pretty much just a portrait of a family. But rarely do family portraits feel this nuanced and honest. It’s completely vivid and moving featuring both the joy of being a kid and just hanging out with cousins, breaking open a watermelon and so on and the inevitable sadness of life never quite turning out the way one hopes it will.

It’s simultaneously very specific in the way it feels completely Japanese (right down to the way even family-members so carefully observe polite behavior around each other) and yet is perfectly universal as evidenced by the way every audience member seemed to respond to it.

The best part of this film is the way the filmmaker is able to show us the flaws in these characters (including the parents) and thereby make them seem perfectly human. It helps that every single actor in the film is good, right down to the kids. But even within such a great cast, Kirin Kiki really stands out as the matriarch. She has moments where she is being both polite and generous and really cruel at the same time and I felt an actual chill watching her do this.

Most of the film is shot in these really pretty static shots (Japanese houses are so beautiful!!) and I thought they suited the simplicity of the film perfectly. It’s a film filled with beautiful moments that I’m sure will stick with me for a while. Like real life, it was this really wonderful mixture of sweet and bitter and slightly sad.

One of my favorite films from 2009 so far.

Grade: B+