If You Go Chasing Rabbits


Grief and self-absorption are at odds in the poignant new film Cottontail. A widower comes to grips with his wife’s death at the expense of his relationship with his son.

When we first meet Kenzaburo he appears to be a vagrant, trawling the city, trading favors. But we come to find out, he has lived with his son Toshi's family since his wife Akiko's death. Amongst her effects Kenzaburo finds a letter from her that reads, "Please don’t suffer anymore." She asks that he scatter her ashes at the site of their romantic idyl in England, Lake Windermere. Toshi wants to go. At her funeral, he tells his father, "It's the kind of thing you do with family." Kenzaburo evades Toshi to travel alone through the English countryside to complete her request.

Akiko and Kenzaburo's story is told in flashbacks. We see their shy courtship through their quarrelsome marriage. Kenzaburo is a failed author disgruntled with his life. Akiko is vibrant and wants a family. Toshi is born despite Kenzaburo's apparent disinterest and becomes the ongoing conflict between them ("I was busy. My work was important." "I wanted to be in your world, too.") As father makes his way, his wife's ashes in a tea can, while son Toshi strives to claim his place in his mother's passage and in his father's heart.

A film like Cottontail depends on the acting. Irish director Patrick Dickinson is fortunate to have a fine cast to navigate the emotional terrain. Lily Franky, a go-to for director Hirokazu Koreeda (Little Sister, Shoplifters) employs his woeful expression to great effect as Kenzaburo. Audiences may have trouble relating to a man who doesn't want children and resents them. Franky goes beyond words; he finds subtle shadings in his character. His eyes wander. He looks at some point away during important conversations, rather than at the speaker. Kosei Kudo plays Kenzaburo as a young man.

As Toshi, Ryo Nishikido shows a heartbreaking need to connect. Yuri Tsunematsu and Tae Kimura portray young and old Akiko respectively. And Rin Takanashi gives a wonderfully understated performance as Toshi's wife Satsuki.

The presence of Irish actor Ciarán Hinds (Game of Thrones) as a gruff farmer named John seems obligatory; his talents are underused. Aoife Hinds (Ciarán's actual daughter) is touching as John's daughter Mary, who takes pity on Kenzaburo and aids his journey.

Patrick Dickinson has directed shorts and Netflix docu-series. Cottontail is his first full length film and shows great restraint. He does not emphasize the fish-out-of-water aspects of a Japanese man traversing the English countryside. We've seen the scattering of ashes before as a narrative device, and it can become precious, an easy tug at heartstrings. Sequences like Kenzaburo proving incapable of dealing with Akiko's deterioration, where Toshi instinctively takes over, are harrowing and astutely character-driven (Mr. Dickinson also wrote the script).

The term "cottontail" refers to Beatrix Potter's classic book The Tale of Peter Rabbit. While this, too, could become a facile symbol, Mr. Dickinson uses it subtly, and makes it a wonderful bridge between East and West, father and son, life and death.

Cottontail. Directed by Patrick Dickinson. 2024. From Level 33 Entertainment. In theaters and on VOD. 94 minutes.

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