Japan Cuts 2011: TOILET Review

Naoko Ogigami's dysfunctional family dramedy Toilet is just slightly on the wrong side of twee and it's certain to turn a certain segment of the audience off, with its quirky collection of agoraphobics, socially awkward man-children, and snooty poets. This film about a trio of siblings grieving the death of their mother and unsure of what to do with their mostly silent, Japanese grandmother layers on the personality to a surplus. But then something happens over its running time: it settles into a groove where the quirks take a backseat to the characters and Toilet surprisingly becomes an earnest, sweet love letter to the kind of matriarch that some of us have been lucky enough to have in our lives to provide a bedrock when things don't quite work out as we hoped.

The trio of siblings is agoraphobic pianist Maury, self-important poet Lisa, and awkward, Gundam figure obsessed scientist Ray. Their ages range from the mid-20's to mid-30's and after their mother's illness and death, circumstances and the machinations of the plot result in them all living in their childhood home.

None of them are especially close, with the needy Maury clinging to both Lisa and Ray, Lisa busy trying to find herself through her art, and Ray hoping to somehow carve both of them out of his life. We never really see where this distance came from--there's never any discussion of what created these fissures between them but, as with many families, it took a funeral to bring them together.

If they're disconnected from each other, they're downright alienated from the grandmother they've only just met, brought over from Japan by their mother just before her death. Ray harbors the suspicion that this woman who knocks around the house, saying nothing may not even be related to them. This plot point which seems destined to lead to one of those crazy mix ups set to keep the quirkiness going actually leads to a sadly moving revelation about the family that reinforces the loving dynamic of the film.

The potentially over-precious elements of the film--the extreme quirks of the characters' personalities, the indie xylophone score that I'm sure you hear in your head right now--they're all elevated to something effective by the wonderful vulnerability of the characters. Each is broken in a plausible way, especially Ray who seems to have suffered some kind of trauma that even he is unaware of, and we grow to like them over the course of the movie.

Of course each character grows and learns something about themselves and of course they find out that the old woman who takes hogs the bathroom first thing in the morning contains depths which they never guessed at and which they needed at just this point in their lives. How could this not be the case? The virtue and success of Toilet is that in spite of providing the expected is how unexpectedly affecting it all ends up being.

Toilet is screening as part of Japan Cuts on Friday, June 15th. You can find out more about the film at the Japan Society site.

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