Director Juzo Itami's life was as full of left turns and intrigue as any of his films. As a child he was selected as a "future scientist" expected to defeat the allies; He was a gifted but undisciplined student, fluent in French but forced to repeat a year of high school; He worked as, among other things, a TV reporter and a magazine editor before acting in films. Itami didn't direct anything until his 50th year, but by then he had coalesced into an idiosyncratic and masterful visual storyteller. To say "The Funeral" is an accomplished debut is an understatement, and its follow-up "Tampopo" is quite rightly considered a modern-day classic.
1995's "Shizukana Seikatsu" ("A Quiet Life") is based on the novel by Kenzaburo Oe, a high-school classmate of Itami's who also co-wrote the screenplay with him. It's the story of an eccentric family led by patriarch Tsutomu Yamazaki ("Tampopo", "Okuribito"), a writer of some renown in an artist's funk. When he and his wife disappear to Australia, they leave their daughter Maa-chan (Hinako Seiki) in charge, both of the house and of her high-functioning but mentally handicapped brother Iiyo (Atsuro Watabe). Rich, sheltered, and naïve to the point of social retardation, Maa-chan spends her days drawing pictures for what looks like some combination of children's book and family diary. Her age is never specified, but she must be late teens/early twenties—ages which don't jibe with her childlike innocence. The film's nondescript timeline that corresponds roughly to a summer, and in that time she comes to understand more about Iiyo, but also more about the world and her place (or lack of place) in it.
Films with a mentally handicapped protagonist range from the good ("Rain Man") to the tiresome ("Nell") to the insufferable ("The Other Sister"). Films of this type live or die based on the decisions of the actor in the key role. "A Quiet Life" doesn't use Iiyo for tearjerking or comic relief (despite one early scene in which Yamazaki catches his screen son with an erection--he shuffles him off the the bathroom to "take care of it" to humorous effect). Iiyo isn't visibly handicapped—he's tall, fit, even handsome. He might be mistaken for a particularly effete dandy, dressing as he does in white slacks, Easter yellow cardigan sweaters and childlike bucket hats. Iiyo is a piano prodigy, writing complicated pieces, but he's also prone to seizures. Watabe's performance is nuanced enough that you can't accuse him of award-fishing or sensationalizing. In a nutshell—forgive me for paraphrasing "Tropic Thunder"—he doesn't "go full retard."
The relationship between Maa-chan and Iiyo is a curious one. She's his caregiver, but her seemingly complete unfamiliarity with how the world works is almost a handicap in itself. She and Iiyo both look like eccentrics; when she goes out, she's dressed as if she's summering in the Hamptons with a wide-brimmed hat and summer dress, and looking around like she's on vacation in a foreign country. To unsavory types she's the epitome of a mark, and it isn't long before she's targeted by Arai (Masayuki Imai). Arai has a mysterious past complicated by a connection to the siblings' father, but when he shows an interest in Maa-chan she can't help but be intrigued. She fantasizes about him as would a pre-teen, of them being happily married and sharing in Iiyo's care. But Arai lives in the real world, where a man's interest in an attractive young woman has more immediate applications than homemaking. Imai's depiction of Arai is strangely chilling: He's smiling, he's helpful, but his eyes are clearly hiding something and the threat of violence always seems present. He'd be right at home in one of Scorcese's mob films, palling around with Joe Pesci or Ray Liotta.
Itami is not exactly batting in his wheelhouse here. His characters are usually smart and sharp, his situations more pointed. Not that "Quiet Life" is without drama and conflict, but the film's rhythm is meandering and appropriately subtle. Itami nevertheless brings a sophistication and wit, and I think a deliberate ambiguity, to the siblings. Finding the right tone for a story like this is a trick, and while it dips into preciousness here and there Itami maintains a balance with occasional tonal shifts that separate it from lesser fare. When reality intrudes into Maa-chan and Iiyo's lives, it is jarring, scary, ugly, and in some ways cruel. But experiencing cruelty is a necessary part of growing up, and despite their ages iii and Maa-chan are definitely children.
As an addition to his varied filmography, "A Quiet Life" is an interesting case. Itami told peculiar stories with drive and verve, and created commercial successes without pandering to topicality or trends. This seems like a more straightforward attempt to craft something more traditional, and as such it's a middling success. But if you're new to Itami, by all means start with his better-known work, "A Taxing Woman" or "Tampopo". "A Quiet Life" is a reasonably satisfying curiosity with exceptional acting, but a minor work from a director with little fear.