Just the right temperature

In Japanese, check with theaters for subtitle information.

Ryôta Nakano’s Her Love Boils Bathwater is a title that may sound a bit cloying, but it certainly gets your attention. The movie itself actually holds your attention, and in spite of a certain predictability – you already know its heroine won’t be cold, because then the title would be “Her Love Freezes Bathwater” – its grace and genuine emotion make it a moving film.
It tells the story of a single mother, Futaba (Miyazawa Rie), who’s struggling to make a living – she works in a bakery and has had to close down her family’s traditional bath business – and raising her daughter, Azumi (Sugisaki Hana), who is bullied mercilessly by the wealthier, mean girls at her school. When Futaba is diagnosed with terminal cancer – this is not a spoiler; it happens very early – she takes some simple steps to repair her family’s problems. Watching her single-minded devotion to fixing what she can – she seems to embody the serenity pledge in that she accepts what she can and can’t fix and clearly understands the difference – is entertaining and at times exhilarating.

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The first item on her agenda is finding her husband, Kazuhiro (Joe Odagari), who disappeared a year before. Hiring a private investigator, she learns that Azumi’s father is in the next town, living with a daughter he had with a woman he knew briefly. This woman ed him to let him know he fathered her child, then disappeared, leaving him to raise the girl. Kazuhiro, a weak-willed schnook who is the kind of person it’s easy to like if you don’t have too much to do with him, is drawn back into his wife’s life. He tries to repair his relationship with his older daughter, and brings his younger daughter into a loving and less chaotic situation than the one she has come from.

Futaba also focuses on getting the bathhouse up and running and teaching Azumi how to overcome the bullying. Each step Futaba takes does not bring a neat resolution, but introduces a set of challenges, and brings new people into her life. Her strength impresses everyone, even people who might otherwise have been fleeting acquaintances, like the private investigator.
Her Love Boils Bathwater belongs to that recent wave of movies from Japan that present a kinder, gentler side of life, while still dealing with an underlying issue or dilemma. One of the best of these, Our Little Sister by Hirokazu Koreeda, looked at three sisters who were abandoned by their father and then took in their half sister after meeting her for the first time at his funeral. Nakano’s previous feature film, Capturing Dad, was a similar story, about an abandoned first wife who sends her daughters to her ex-husband’s funeral, where they get a warmer welcome than they expected. These films all concentrate on overcoming bitterness and linger on the most ordinary tasks of daily life, often cooking, to show how people can bond through sharing uncomplicated, if minor, joys.

Her Love Boils Bathwater is anchored by Rie’s performance in the lead. It’s not an easy role, because she has to convince us she is strong enough to handle the sudden discovery of her impending mortality but also tender enough to enjoy every step she takes that is informed by this knowledge, but she pulls it off beautifully. Her scenes with her daughter are the simplest and most heartfelt in the film, and the two actresses play them brilliantly. Whether or not the specter of imminent death looms, mother-daughter dynamics stay pretty much the same. If you didn’t know the actresses weren’t related, you might think they were really family.

Her Love Boils Bathwater has its clichéd moments, but it always recovers fast. Those who aren’t put off by the inherent sadness in the concept will find this film compelling in its depiction of how this heroine chooses to choreograph her own exit, and although you may cry, you won’t leave the theater depressed.