A boy named Yukio (Riku Onishi) is tasked with writing an essay about a family member. While his classmates choose to write about their accomplished career parents, Yukio selects his uncle (Ryuhei Matsuda): a worthless layabout who works 90 minutes a week as a philosophy lecture while camping out indefinitely in his brother’s (Yukio’s father) house.
Japanese cinema has a long history of worthless comedic layabouts, most notably the iconic Tora-San (Kiyoshi Atsumi) who comically stumbled his way through 48 near-identical films between 1969 and 1995. My Uncle draws an awful lot from that franchise; in fact the more the film progresses the more overt the similarities become. That is no bad thing. The Tora-San films ran for so many decades because they struck a formula that resonated and worked. Ryuhei Matsuda’s Uncle does not quite match the Tora template, but that is all to the movie’s benefit. He is less highly strung and prone to anger, instead spending his days in a sort of faux-intellectual languidity. He is insufferable to his family, and hopelessly vain and lazy. Matsuda wisely underplays the character, infusing humour through awkward pauses and vacillation rather than overt histrionics. It is one of the best comedic performances I have seen this year. Co-star Riku Onishi gives about as accomplished a performance, which is impressive given his young age and comparative inexperience. It is a hard job playing the straight one in a comedy double-act, but Onishi pulls it off marvellously. He is the audience’s viewpoint and narrator, and does so with a nice sense of realism.
The film splits broadly into two halves: the first introducing Uncle and emphasising his laziness, and the second following him on a trip to Hawaii to pursue a romantic interest. The first half is absolutely the strongest of the two. The plot is relatively slight, allowing director Nobuhiro Yamashita plenty of scope to concentrate on small-scale moments of day-to-day life. Yukio’s school assignment is to write about an adult whom he admires: he compiles a series of day-to-day observations on his useless uncle instead. It is a great format that allows for an episodic string of incidents and mishaps.
The screenplay creaks, however, with the strain of shifting from Japan to Hawaii; thankfully up to that point it has been enough of a delight for the unlikely plot developments to be forgiven. Once in Hawaii the jokes become a lot more obvious, and somewhat less effective. A translation mishap sees Uncle caught in the middle of a drug deal, and there is a shotgun-wielding white American who shoots in the air at the slightest provocation. They feel rote and a little tired, when the Japan-set sequences felt a bit more underplayed and effective. Thankfully the warmth remains throughout – and its that gentle, laid-back warmth that keeps the audience watching right through. Uncle – he never learn his actual name – is a terrible person, but so deftly written and performed that we love him all the same. This is an imperfect film, but an enormously enjoyable one.