There are many theories as to how the Asian variety of mock strawberry hebi ichigo (Duchesnea chrysantha) – quite literally “snake strawberry” got its name. The name is so old – the Japanese adopted the name from the Chinese – that no one knows its origin for certain. This pretty little flowering plant of the rose family is found growing in the wild all over Japan. It resembles a wild strawberry, but disappoints when eaten for it is bland. After watching Miwa Nishikawa’s debut feature film Hebi Ichigo (Wild Berries/蛇イチゴ, 2003), I had to think of the English idiom “snake in the grass”, for in her film the members of the Akechi family are like the hebi ichigo: on the surface they appear as lovely as wild strawberries but it is all a façade. In fact, the more we learn about their true personalities, the more they appear to be a den of venomous snakes.
The Akechi family have mastered the art of tatemae (建前, the public face one is expected to uphold for the sake of family/work) to such a high degree that not even other members of the family are aware of each other’s honne (本音, one’s true feelings and desires). The father, Yoshiro Akechi (Sei Hiraizumi), has lost his job as a salaryman but puts on a pretense of going off to “work” each day in the desperate hope of finding a job so that he does not lose face with his family. His wife, Akiko (Naoko Otani) plays the role of dutiful housewife, taking care of the household and her increasingly senile father-in-law Kyozo Akechi played with terrific comic timing by the great rakugo storyteller Matsunosuke Shofukutei. Akiko never complains, despite the fact that her situation has become intolerable.
When their daughter, the straight-laced school teacher Tomoko (Miho Tsumiki), brings her boyfriend Kamata (Toru Tezuka) home to meet the folks, he is totally taken in by the Akechi family’s apparent normalcy. Having been raised in a privileged family of inherited wealth, Kamata thinks that he has found a potential wife from the ideal family in which the mother and father selflessly sacrifice themselves by working hard for the good of the family. This public façade (tatemae) comes crashing down at the grandfather’s funeral when one-by-one the members of the Akechi family begin to reveal their true selves (honne). The greatest family secret of all is Tomoko's disowned brother Shuji (Hirayuki Miyasako), the proverbial black sheep of the family, whose unexpected return brings even more chaos.
On the surface, this sounds like an absolutely depressing tale, but Nishikawa has written a brilliant black comedy on par, in my opinion, with the classic Alec Guinness vehicle Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949). It’s the kind of humour that has one cringing and laughing at the same time. On the Japanese DVD release of Hebi Ichigo the acerbic dialogue has been excellently translated by Linda Hoaglund (director of ANPO: Art X War) for the English subtitles. It is rare for a debut feature film to look and sound so terrific, but Nishikawa was fortunate to have the guiding hand of Hirokazu Koreeda (After Life, Still Walking) as her producer. Not only did the film go on to win Nishikawa the Best New Director award at the 2004 Yokohama Film Festival, but it marked the beginning of a directorial career that has been brilliant so far with Sway (2006) and Dear Doctor (2009) bringing her much critical praise.
Hebi Ichigo is available via cdjapan: