Cancer kills more characters in Japanese movies than any other disease excepting that old standby “noble sacrifice through vehicular accident/drowning to save the life of a stupid child”, which is epidemic. Cancer can be omnipresent, it can develop alongside the plot, or it can creep up on you at the end and kill you off in a reconciliatory way.
This is a preamble to saying that the Japanese Film Festival has consistently had strong representation from characters with cancer across the years. Many movies will wear their cancer on their sleeve, while others will spring it on you in ways that can only be construed as ridiculous. About Her Brother presents itself as a “home drama” that the promo material promises will contain the spectre of terminal illness.
With that thought in the back of my mind, I eagerly waited for the titular character to be struck down. Fortunately he’s a fictional character so I’m allowed to think this, but that doesn’t mean I relished his demise.
Koharu is marrying into a rich family, and her estranged uncle Tetsuro crashes the wedding after a five year absence from family life. Until a death bed reconciliation, Tetsuro infrequently shows up in the lives of Koharu and her mother, Ginko, and generally makes things difficult for them.
As the name About Her Brother (literally Little Brother) attests, this movie is about a woman who is in part defined by her relationship to her shiftless, lazy, “no account” brother. She is given little agency beyond the spectrum of Tetsuro, who actually verges on completely destroying her livelihood and shows entirely no remorse for it.
About Her Brother is a movie firmly steeped in cultural differences: the treatment of Koharu seems more than vaguely sexist, as her life “begins” when she gets married and “ends” when she gets divorced. Her reasons for divorce seem trivial when scripted, but are fortunately lent greater credence once Ginko has a meeting with her son-in-law. Koharu is even less of a character than Ginko, in that she really only gets to serve as the opening narrator and then as a tool to suggest that marriage is not always the answer but that a young girl has to be in a relationship to have any worth (Ginko is pardoned on account of her widow status, but people do wonder why she hasn’t remarried).
Besides that, the problem is that we’re supposed to feel something for Tetsuro because he has been shunned and lonely for much of his life, but this theory entirely ignores that he has given everyone he knows good reason to stay away from him: he borrows large sums of money which he never returns and his dedication to alcohol is literally staggering. He mistreats the people in his life and they do their best to avoid him where they can.
Tetsuro’s inevitable deathbed is where he finds redemption, and this rings false. The only reason that Ginko likes him now is because he can’t move enough to cheat and disappoint her. The hospice sequences operate on human pathos and hope that one will sympathise with the basic situation, but if you want me to care about a man who essentially threw his life and family away you’ve got another thing coming.
About Her Brother is a well acted film, and it manipulates the right emotional spots before its time is up, but the tyrannical brother never manages to earn the respect or sympathy that the audience needs to carry them over the line.