All About Our House (2001)
Nicholas Driscoll
March 25, 2007
Note: review may contain spoilers

I appreciate Japanese comedies. While I haven't loved all of the ones I have seen (Drugstore Girl was rather abominable), for the most part, whether animated or live action, they are charming to me. From what I have seen, often they are either gentle and moving in their humor, or off-the-wall wacky, taking advantage of non-sequitur and character embarrassment whenever possible. Director Koki Mitani has made something of a career out of cinematic comedies, both in writing and directing. With All About Our House (Japanese title Minna no Ie, translates as All About the House in the Japanese DVD release), Mr. Mitani has created a slow-moving, character-driven comedy that works well even for an American audience.

Naosuke Iijima (Naoki Tanaka), an ever-busy and antsy television writer, and his domineering wife, Tamiko (Akiko Yagi), have been planning to build their own home for some time. They have finally found the ideal land, and they hire one of Tamiko's friends from college, the caustic, artistic hard-nose Mr. Yanagisawa (Toshiaki Karasawa), to design and her father, aging-but-spirited Chouichirou Iwata (Kunie Tanaka) and his old geezer construction team, to build. Unfortunately, the maestro (as Mr. Yanagisawa is regularly called) and Mr. Iwata have strongly differing ideas of how a home is to be built, stemming largely from their respective ages and levels of experience. When Naosuke's mother begins to apply her mystical Feng Shui advice and Mr. Iwata has yet another set of blueprints secretly drawn up to his specifications, the stress goes through the roof (ahem) and our amusement (and sympathy) finds a home in our hearts. (Alright, I'm sorry, that was cheesy.)

The plot of All About Our House is fairly realistic as far as comedies go; much of the humor comes in identifying with the characters and their situations. There are a fair share of somewhat ludicrous situations, but never anything completely outside of reality. The action focuses in on the characters involved, and slowly (sometimes too slowly) builds up around them, revealing more of who they are and what their motivations are composed of. Indeed, at times All About Our House starts to almost look like a drama with humorous elements, but this is to the film's credit. This isn't just about the laughs. Actually, one of the film's strongest themes (and one that crops up again much less successfully in Mitani's Suite Dreams from 2006) explores how practicality and artistry collide. How can you be true to the art and make a living? When is artistic compromise too much? Naosuke and the maestro stand at opposite sides of this spectrum.

Naosuke Iijima works hard at his job, writing scripts for an absurd comedy show dealing with the hijinx at an apartment building. (The very first scene of the film, right after the credits, is from a scene Naosuke is working on for that show, and actually features Godzilla—as represented by what appears to be a promotional suit for the previous year's Godzilla vs. Megaguiras.) Naosuke is always compromising, always saying yes, and always brown-nosing. He's obsequious to a fault, due to his care for others and his phenomenally low self-esteem. As portrayed by Naoki Tanaka, Naosuke is a jittering, somewhat exaggerated version of some of the stressed-out Japanese men I know here in Japan. Tanaka's performance sometimes becomes more caricature than character, but, for me, Naosuke was very sympathetic.

The maestro, Mr. Yanagisawa, is quite the opposite. He takes his art seriously, and if anyone alters or tarnishes his artistic vision, then they are soon to meet his wrath. Director Mitani must have done some homework, for the maestro is constantly going on about artistic movements and architectural inspirations. He is always trying to do things differently, whether (shock!) insisting that the front door of the house should open in instead of out, or designing the house in inches instead of metrics. He is selfish, harsh, and insensitive to the pain of others, especially when it is inflicted by his horrible, aggressive driving. To accent his image, the maestro even has a dark-skinned foreigner girlfriend. Unfortunately, the hapless "actress" that portrays her is the biggest blemish in the entire film, delivering her lines energetically and painfully with some of the worst acting this side of a small-town high school play. Karasawa's turn as the maestro, however, is quite masterful in comparison. Whether showing delight in the art he has made or disdain for the humans who get in the way, Karasawa shows a fine understanding of his character and makes us believe he is a jerk.

However, the best performance goes easily to Kunie Tanaka as Chouichiro Iwata. The man looks like a human basset hound, and across those sad wrinkly eyes and through those pronounced jowls comes a refined level of thespian skill. Iwata is the quintessential stubborn father who wants things his way, at first no matter how infuriated he makes his daughter or the maestro. To him, this is his last big job, a job for his family, an opportunity to show those closest to him just how good he and his now-geriatric team really are. His slow realizations of what he is causing his daughter, his frustrating gall in pursuing his dream, his beaming joy over his successes all come clearly through in his delightful performance.

Not everything is so well balanced and full of delight, however. Akiko Yagi's expressive Tamiko character, so integral and important to the first third of the film, slowly disappears by the end, and we never get a real sense of closure to her character. Actually, and ironically since it is their house that is built, both hers and Naosuke's characters get snubbed in the end. Naosuke's troubles with the latest television scripts, which, again, were made quite important in the first half of the film, are ignored almost completely by the end, and indeed, his own story arc never feels resolved. It's kind of depressing how he ends up, although even the characterizations of Yanagisawa and Iwata seem to go through a slightly rushed change.

Music in the film is of the instrumental variety largely dominated by string movements supported by piano. It's pleasant and light-hearted, the kind of music you might find in a nice restaurant, but it works better here. There is also a jazzy number utilized during one scene, and a couple songs play low on the car radio to highlight Yanagisawa's character. Overall, the music complements the slow-moving plot well and is used sparingly to enhance key scenes, like when Iwata is reunited with his old (literally) construction team, or when the construction of the building is taking place. From beginning to end, it never grates but rather enhances.

As long as you're not expecting fast-paced antics or lots of huge belly-laughs, this film's fine characters and slowly building plot is quite enjoyable and even offers a little insight into what goes into making your own home in Japan. All About Our House may not be for everybody, but it pleased me.