Dear Deer: Written by Noriaki Sugihara, directed by Takeo Kikuchi. Starring: Yuri Nakamura, Yoichiro Saito, Koji Kiryu, Shota Sometani, and Rinko Kikuchi. Running Time: 107 minutes.
The growth of industrialization and globalization will, I suspect, continue to give us ample opportunities to explore stories like that in Dear Deer, a well-made balancing act between a concentrated family drama and a view of a small country town struggling to overcome increasingly difficult economic straits.
Our focus is on three siblings, reuniting in their hometown for the first time in years to visit their sick father, who’s not expected to live long. Akiko, the youngest, left for Tokyo years ago to marry an older man. Their marriage is now on the rocks, and she desperately wants a divorce (but he doesn’t- this becomes important later on). The younger brother, Yoshio, has been in and out of psychological care, although he insists he’s been getting better lately. Fujio, the oldest, was the only one who stayed, following in their father’s footsteps and trying to keep the family machining shop solvent, definitely turning away the incessant requests of a real estate dealer to sell the factory. As a result, he’s become a bit of a rallying point for the town elders who want to push back against the planned development of a shopping center, which its proponents bill as the only way to bring prosperity back to the town.
It doesn’t take long to see how strained their familiar relationship is with each other, or with their father (he was apparently pretty abusive when they were younger), but their angst doesn’t end there. We learn in the beginning that they created a stir as young children when they believed they had captured a photograph of a local type of deer long thought to be extinct. At first, they were praised as town heroes, with many thinking this would revive tourism to the area. But it seems that deer was never seen again, and eventually everyone assumed the kids had simply made it up, and started teasing them for it.
Whether or not this was the beginning of the various mental and emotional issues the family has depends on whom you ask- Akiko and Yoshio go back and forth blaming their dad, each other, their classmates from their schoolyears, and the mystical deer itself for their problems. Fujio just wants everyone to be pleasant with each other and for them to enjoy being together as a family, and boy oh boy, how quickly he is disappointed.
There are other individuals in play as well- the persistent real estate man is an old flame of Akiko’s, and even though he’s married to one of their classmates, they soon strike up an affair that he, at least, takes seriously. Yoshio inadvertently kills a dog early in the film, and later learns to his horror that it belonged to his lone schoolfriend from way back when, who also never left town. Fujio has been trying to expand his business by working with the head of the town’s temple, but soon starts to suspect he’s being ripped off.
It does take a bit for Dear Deer to get going, but when the pins finally start to fall in the third act, the results are truly explosive. All the pent-up anger, bitterness, jealousy, and impotent rage that’s been building up the whole time bursts out into the open during the father’s funeral service, and in a single take set to the beating of a Shinto drum we see any remaining dignity and maturity fall all to pieces.
It is a spectacular moment, justifying every second spent leading up to it. That Akiko and Yoshio and their old school “friends” were stretched ready to burst is obvious almost from the moment we meet them, but the real surprise is Fujio. It’s clear he wants to be the mature one, the one in control, the “real adult” in the room, so it’s all the more impossible to turn away when he, too, cracks, proving that old maxim that no apple falls very far from its tree.
Dear Deer might be small in its ambitions and scopes, but it knows how to play its cards when the time is right, making it poignant in the right spots and hilariously off-the-wall nutty in others. If only every family drama could that this kind of crass confidence in itself.