Japan Cuts, the Japan Society’s annual roundup of new Japanese film, is ongoing through the 28th of the month. Toad’s Oil, directed by and starring Koji Yakusho, plays this Saturday afternoon as part of a sidebar on the actor.
It’s hard to describe Toad’s Oil without making it sound like a well-meaning but dismally quirky melodrama. The film is the amiably eccentric directorial debut of venerable character actor Koji Yakusho, probably most famous in America as the leading man of many of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s horror films. And yet, the depth of feeling and simplicity of the film’s optimistic philosophy is pretty remarkable.
Toad’s Oil is the amiably eccentric directorial debut of venerable character actor Koji Yakusho, probably most famous in America as the leading man of many of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s horror films. He plays a risk-taking investment banker who loses his biological son but ends up bonding with his adopted son. Both Yakusho’s character and his dead son are shown to treat life like a game, a practice that helps them to get the most out of their lives. “In life, you need the spirit to look at things from different angles,” Yakusho intones solemnly before breaking out into goofy laughter. There’s no point where this movie takes itself so seriously that its characters can’t chuckle good-naturedly at themselves. Yakusho delivers a great performance as a father who spends much of the film’s 131-minute runtime in denial and then, almost imperceptibly, learns how to positively shrug off his own abiding emotional insensitivity.
Furthermore, scenes where Yakusho’s character good-naturedly flirts with his dead son’s young girlfriend, because he’s simultaneously too afraid to break the news to her and is also disarmed by her boundless energy, give the film a strong dramatic thrust. With a healthy dose of magical realism and a daffy chase scene involving a CGI bear that gets kicked in the nards, Toad’s Oil is anything but your average weepie.