Movie Review: Dad’s Lunch Box (パパのお弁当は世界一)

If you’re up on the latest fads coming from Japan, you’re probably already well aware of something called “papaben”. It’s short for “papa no bento”, or “Dad’s lunch box”. A few years ago, a Japanese father got it into his head to start making lunch for his child and like most things in that country, the idea took off, got very competitive and, in no time, became elevated to an art form. If you do a search on YouTube for “bento box”, you’ll find hundreds of tutorial videos on how to ensure your little angel is the envy of all the other kids in the classroom.

Tokikazu Ohtsu was one such father. A single salaryman, he had been making lunch boxes for his teenaged daughter, Midori, throughout her high school years. On her graduation day about two years ago, she decided to post to Twitter a photo of his final bento along with her own words of thanks to her dad. The tweet went viral and it wasn’t long before she had 350,000 followers. Apparently, dads all over Japan cried when they read her note. (Japanese men can be very sensitive when they want to be.) The Ohtsus’ story has now been turned into a movie quite appropriately called DAD’S LUNCH BOX, although the Japanese title is a bit more descriptive. It means “Dad Makes the World’s Best Bento”.

The story begins rather strangely. We see the father (Japanese hip hop artist Toshimi Watanabe/渡辺俊美) sitting in a restaurant booth with a woman. She tells him to look after Midori because the kid is a picky eater, and off she goes. Who is this woman? His wife? His girlfriend? We never find out but whatever relationship the two of them had, Dad seems to get over it rather quickly. I’m talking nanoseconds here. Faced with being the sole provider of nourishment for his daughter, Dad decides to get cooking and, not surprisingly, his first effort is a bit of a trainwreck leaving poor Midori (Reina Takeda/武田玲奈) to experience Lunch Box Shame for perhaps the first time in her young life. Fortunately, her two girlfriends are more than supportive, even going so far as encouraging Midori to give her Dad another chance. With the help of those instructional videos, numerous cookbooks, the neighbourhood produce vendor and a female colleague at work who lets him know that it’s one thing to make bentos for sons but it’s another to make them for daughters, Dad slowly but surely ups his game. Of course, one has to wonder who is cooking dinner each night if Dad is such a disaster in the kitchen. It certainly doesn’t look like Midori does much of anything around the apartment. She does, however, make great faces when she sees her Dad’s soggy tempura and does a brilliant imitation of an injured puppy when he tries his hand at sushi.

Although the story is completely predictable, it is sweet and it has its moments of laugh-out-loud humour. I can’t imagine my father ever considering making my lunch when I was in high school (or anytime before that, for that matter) much less taking the time to turn it into a work of art. Even my mother stopped making my lunches by then. I either made my own or she gave me money to buy something in the school cafeteria – not that I’m complaining! The performances by Watanabe and Takeda are good too. Interestingly, Watanabe is a noted papaben practitioner himself, having published his own book – complete with photos of his chefs d’oeuvre – on the subject in 2014. My disappointment with the film, however, comes with the lack of character development. We never see Dad and Midori have a conversation about anything other than bentos. Midori doesn’t seem to mature either. Yes, she gets a boyfriend along the way, but at no time (that we see, at any rate) does she step up and contribute to the bento-crafting responsibilities or encourage her dad to get a life outside of the home and office. I would like to think that not having a mother on the scene would have made the two much closer. Perhaps the real Midori was this way too, but I hope not. If the characters would have had a deeper relationship, this could have been a great film.

All in all, though, DAD’S LUNCH BOX is still worth seeing. It’s not the best Japanese film you’ll see this year but it is light and fun, and sometimes that’s all you need.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, June 14th at 8:30 am HK time!

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