A sudden pregnancy divides and unites two best friends in Hajime Tsuda’s quiet comedy-drama.

“Can you raise it alone? Of course you can’t.”

Family is what you make of it. It’s a sentiment that’s often repeated in sitcoms aplenty, usually during a disastrous Christmas or Thanksgiving episode, and quite often by Vin Diesel, in that film franchise where he’s neither blind nor a tree. But despite its simple idea, a lot of media that use this mantra don’t quite do much with it outside of a speech and a big group hug. They never really look at the nitty gritty that really matters. This year, the London Queer East Film Festival is delving into this topic as well with a deep dive look at non-traditional families, and starts out strong with its opening film Daughters.

Ayaka Miyoshi and Junko Abe star as Koharu and Ayano, respectively: two young women living together in Tokyo. Both are career-focused women who enjoy taking advantage of everything Tokyo has to offer, including its night life scene. After a farewell party for their friend, Ayano finds herself pregnant with his child. She chooses to not to tell him, and together with Koharu, opts to raise it herself. Taking place over the course of the pregnancy, Daughters is unabashedly true to life, and as such the stakes aren’t particularly high (there are no villains, no physical threats – though they are extremely real.

None of this would matter if the two characters the movie follows were annoying or difficult to watch. Thankfully, the two leads are immensely likeable and charming, and their characters feel both unique enough to create drama but also genuine enough to allow the audience to connect. Movies like this hinge entirely on whether or not the audience cares about its central protagonists, and in Miyoshi and Abe, Daughters is in very reliable hands.

Their chemistry carries the film, and the rest of it gets by on small scenes of the two women adjusting to their new life. Ayano hides it well, but Koharu can’t get behind some of her friend’s choices. She’s a supportive figure – more so than many other friends would be in similar situation – but understandably hates how her life has been turned upside down since her partner in crime stopped drinking or doing anything fun. These scenes are emphasised in a clever, if sometimes silly, fashion by blending the flashback-triggering elements from the present day and incorporating them into flashbacks that occasionally make it look like Koharu isn’t missing her friend as much as she is missing just getting completely shit-faced at every opportunity.

Tsuda’s script is a very strong look at how friendships can strain, and how two people who love each other dearly can make a perfectly strong family unit regardless of whether or not they’re married, or even a couple. The relationship between the women is kept purely platonic, but moments of queer coding are noticeable. How you choose to read it is up to you, but it doesn’t change the message of the movie. Circumstances of parenthood have changed in Japan for women, and the ideals of a perfect family unit are always in flux. Some things are also still drastically behind: The taboo of the single (female) parent is still present, but public opinion is changing. A voice of reason, the obstetrician played by Nene Otsuka, tells Ayano that a quarter of children are born to single mothers.

It tip-toes the line between comedy and drama often, never settling into one particular genre. This mish-mash of styles works in its favour, as its slice-of-life style gets bolstered by the realistic and sometimes sudden shifts between moments of levity and sadness. Most realistically of all, however, is in the way it never tries to force conflict. It’s a movie that’s remarkably sensible in the way its characters talk and act. When Ayano goes to her distant father for advice, he’s reticent to accept it but ultimately does because he loves her, acknowledging even he was the reason Ayano herself was raised by a single mother.

Ultimately, Daughters isn’t just a story about two friends (“friends”) making the best of a complex situation. It’s also a way for the director to show how, despite recent improvements, there is still plenty that can still be done. In the building of a family unit, the support of the people around the family can be just as important as the family itself, and without those moments that show the bond between the two women as well as the people around them, Daughters would look naive in its optimistic outlook. It shows that family consists of those who stick by you during the worst times. At least for now: the film ends at the start of the Reiwa era, in April 2019. In under a year, they’ll find themselves quarantined in a tiny Tokyo apartment with a baby. Now there’s a sequel I’d watch.

Verdict: Daughters might not be the most challenging statement to any establishment, but its quiet charm and loveable leads make for a captivating and credible portrayal.

Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Violence: 0/10
Sex: All off-screen, though Robo Chair loves to get women on their backs
Queerness: A very low 1/10
Sweet older women: 10/10 for the grandma, doctor and the Okinawan hotel owner
Staring out a rainy window scenes: 1
Shots of eating and drinking: Approximately five hundred thousand
Treasured memories: Getting drunk, eating scorpions
Movie bookends: Milk? Sure, why not.

Daughters (2020)

Director: Hajime Tsuda
Writer: Hajime Tsuda

Ayaka Miyoshi – Junko
Junko Abe – Ayano
Nene Otsuka – Doctor
Tomoka LKurotani – Tsutsumi
Hisako Okata – Ayano’s Grandmother
Shingo Tsurumi – Ayano’s Father

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