It’s no secret that divorce is messy and complicated, particularly when children are involved. From the child’s perspective, it may be the moment that you realize your parents are human. It may also stir complicated feelings about loyalty, especially if one parent (unwittingly or intentionally) pits their children against the other parent. For the adults, there’s the question of what it means to be a stepfather or stepmother, and the inevitable tension in a household where you may not be welcome, or at the very least may not feel like a full member of the family. Building a stable relationship among all the members of your “new” and “old” families can feel like a lifelong process that’s never really on solid ground.
In Japan, all these realities are mixed with the frequent complication of wanting to keep the new and the old families very separate. Though both parents may maintain relationships with their children after a divorce, custody of children is almost always awarded to the mother, and joint custody arrangements are rare. This means that it’s mostly legal—and common—for one parent to prevent the other from having any sort of relationship with a child (or for one parent, usually the father, to simply remove themselves from a child’s life, especially if the mother in question has remarried). One reason for this is the idea that it will give the children a sense of normalcy, and that moving back and forth between two families could cause undue stress. Even in situations where relations are amicable, questions linger for both parents and children about everyone’s roles and responsibilities.
Dear Etranger (2017) explores the complicated, messy reality of post-divorce life in Japan more authentically than almost any Japanese film I’ve seen. Admittedly, my bar is somewhat low when it comes to contemporary family dramas, where layers and uncertainties are often dispensed with in favor of predictable story lines and one-dimensional characters who all achieve some kind of tearful closure by the end. Dear Etranger, in contrast, offers no easy answers and yet manages to not be unendingly grim, instead presenting us with flawed, frustrating, but ultimately interesting people that we care about, and who we desperately want to find some kind of happiness, even if that seems like a challenge.
Based on the novel by Kiyoshi Shigematsu (adapted by Haruhiko Arai) and directed by Yukiko Mishima, Dear Etranger tells the story of Makoto Tanaka (Tadanobu Asano), a forty-something salaryman remarried to Nanae (Rena Tanaka), who has two children, Kaoru (Sara Minami) and Eriko (Miu Arai), by her previous husband. Makoto split with his career-driven first wife, Yuka (the always wonderful Shinobu Terajima) after he wanted a second child and she didn’t. He’s still close to his daughter, Saori (Raiju Kamata) and maintains a mostly amicable relationship with Yuka, who has also remarried. Nanae’s ex-husband, meanwhile, is mostly out of the picture—he’s an underemployed gambler who was physically abusive to both Nanae and the children. Makoto married Nanae when both of her children were still fairly young, and he has moved naturally into the role of “papa” in their household.
Or so it seemed. The film begins with Makoto finding out that Nanae is pregnant with a third child, which leaves her thrilled and him uncertain. The now-adolescent Kaoru has also suddenly turned cold and hostile toward everyone in the family, sneering at Makoto and claiming that she wants to live with her “real” father, which leaves Makoto confused and Nanae frustrated.
Fairly standard struggles with money, health, and relationships follow, but I marveled at how deftly Mishima and all of the actors captured the many contradictions inherent in each character’s personality, and how they each deal with the budding gap between what the world has told them they should want and what they actually desire. Makoto, decent and upstanding family man though he may be, is fairly clueless when it comes to understanding what his wife, ex-wife, and daughters need from him. In comparison to the abusive ex, he’s a gem, but he’s still fumbling and uncertain a lot of the time. He also seems to realize the irony of his situation—he divorced his first wife essentially because he wanted her to be more of a stay-at-home housewife with him as the primary breadwinner, but early on in the film we see that he’s having trouble at work. Now, having seemingly gotten what he wanted in the much more domestic and family-oriented Nanae, he chafes at the pressure on him to be the primary decision-maker and provider, and wonders if they can really handle having a third child.
Though only on screen for a few minutes, Raiju Kamata is striking as Makoto’s adolescent daughter by his first wife. Saori is cheerful and dotes on her father, but later in the film, when her world and Makoto’s world with his new family, long kept separate, get a little too close, she shows a remarkable range of emotion: shame at causing any sort of trouble for the father she idolizes, desire to be a part of that second family, and grief at the barrier that still exists between her world and her father’s.
One of the most fascinating characters by far, though, is Makoto’s stepdaughter Kaoru. Easily dismissed in the beginning as an eye-rolly adolescent who just hates everything and everyone, over time we realize that this is a carefully constructed persona born of the very real trauma of being abused by her father (and sometimes being forced into the role of “protector” for her mother and little sister Eriko). Importantly, even she admits that she doesn’t fully understand why she behaves the way she does, sharing Makoto’s frustration at her hostility. Kaoru does not, thankfully, turn into a smiling and well-adjusted teenager who’s reconciled completely with her stepfather by the end of the film, but we get the sense at least that she’s beginning to heal.
In addition to their very real economic and emotional struggles, all of these characters are ultimately fighting against expectations: their own, society’s, their loved ones’. They were promised a version of work and family life that they didn’t get, and that may not even have been desirable in the first place, but they still cling to the remnants of it. Some of them may never be able to completely let those dreams go, but we get the sense that all of them are slowly accepting their new reality, even if it doesn’t quite look like what they were promised.
Dear Etranger goes on a bit too long, and some of its flashback sequences feel a touch heavy-handed and unnecessary. But in a film landscape where stories of family life tend to oscillate between utterly unrealistic melodramas and grim depictions of endless suffering, this film is a welcome middle ground—realistic and layered, at times painful to watch, but with enough warmth to leave you with a sense of cautious hope when it’s done.