EXPECTATIONS: A nice-looking slice-of-life film. Takako Matsu is always a big plus.
REVIEW: Shunji Iwai, oh my. I remember my very first viewing of a Shunji Iwai film. I was sick from school and I was just watching daytime television. Switching to the SBS channel, I saw the beginning of a film that involved two schoolgirls on a playful through the streets and a park to the train station, with a nice piano score in the background. There was something about it that had me entranced like the digital video cinematography or the musical score, but I realized that it was the two female leads and their wonderful, genuine chemistry. That film was Hana and Alice, starring Yu Aoi and Anne Suzuki (A film that I’ll review later). You’re probably wondering, why am I talking about Hana and Alice instead of the film I’m meant to be reviewing, which is April Story? Hana and Alice was my first live-action film that I’ve seen from Japan, ever. It wasn’t some sex film that I saw at late night SBS or videotape nor did I confuse it with a film I saw in another language, but it was the first film that got me hooked into Japanese film-making, and I will always be thankful to SBS and this film for knowing and nurturing the passion for film that I have today. Now today, I have chosen April Story because I have recently graduated from university and I do kind of miss those times of stress, fun times and socializing in the areas and I thought this would be the perfect film that could satiate my mood.
The film starts off with Uzuki Nireno (Takako Matsu) on a train, which is about to depart from Hokkaido to Tokyo. Her parents are outside to farewell her off, wishing her a safe and happy time as she starts off a new chapter of her life in Musashino University. There we see her chronicles, obstacles and revelations a part of her of university life that develop her as a person as well as our involvement and immersion of the character and the film.
A slice-of-life film is, in my definition, a film that depicts an true-to-life event in a character’s life that defines the lead character or foreshadows a path that the character will truly become. April Story is exactly that. And clocking at 64 minutes, it accomplishes so much that you alternately feel completely satisfied AND wanting more by the time the film ends. One of the best things that propels the film is Iwai’s storytelling. Like most of his films (except his dark films like All About Lily Chou-Chou and Swallowtail Butterfly), his films have beautiful cinematography that can only be described as magical. The lighting, compositions, even the wind gives a soothing effect that makes the transition between home life and university life convincing. Like a scene in the beginning of the film, where a moving truck is arriving at its destination with the many sakura (cherry blossom) falling off the trees. It is such a beautiful metaphor for the beginning of a new chapter in Nireno’s life. The gentle musical score also accentuates that kind of mood that it makes the film become some type of a fairy tale.
Iwai also really captures the haunting solitude and loneliness by having his character some seemingly weird characters to have weird exchanges with and having her complete her main activities of daily university life in such a mundane manner, such as joining a club or introducing herself to the students. But he never wrings the story for heart-wrenching drama, but an approach as a character study. The film has quite a few touches of humour (mostly fish-out-of-water) that not only amuse, but also shows more about the character. Some examples are Nireno naming the wrong Brad Pitt film that involves fly-fishing to some students resulting in embarrassment or a scene where Nireno would constantly try to help the movers with her own luggage but constantly gets ignored. What I also noticed about Iwai’s storytelling is that his films are more about details than actual plot and while it is most unfortunate in some of his films due to dragging the running time (like Hana and Alice and Swallowtail), it never affects April Story, but rather enhances it.
But none of the above would work as effectively as it does without the female lead, Takako Matsu. Iwai always chose the perfect actresses for his roles, whether it is acting veterans (Miho Nakayama, fantastic in dual roles in Love Letter) or acting newcomers (Yu Aoi in All About Lily Chou-Chou, who will become Iwai’s muse) and Takako Matsu is no exception. She shows remarkable restraint and subtlety in her performance that when she finally opens up a little more about her intentions and feelings in the second half of the film, it satisfyingly pays off. There’s a scene in the bookstore where she meets a male clerk at the counter. The scene itself lasts for like 30 seconds, but the acting from Matsu, shown by her looks, her trembling lips and her hand gestures as she gets her change shows so much about her character that many would say that this point in the film would be the point where the film actually starts to come together, literally and figuratively. The supporting actors all do their parts sufficiently, with Rumi standing out as the weird “friend”, Saeko Sono, who drags Nireno to join the fly-fishing club.
As for its flaws, and there aren’t that many considering its running time, is that there are some details that could befuddle viewers (like a elongated scene set in a cinema) and the film ends as soon as the revelations are revealed, but as the slice-of-life film/character study it is, it’s a miracle that the film has such an impact that it achieves. There aren’t many films this quiet that has given me such a still-growing appreciation in my mind and a warm feeling in my heart.
Takako Matsu’s performance
Shunji Iwai’s direction and storytelling
The cinematography and music
The ending is incredibly satisfying as a conclusion as well as a new beginning
Details in the film may leave people puzzled
Those looking for an actual plot may be disappointed
SCORE: 8/10 (Accomplishes more than films twice its length)
Cast: Takako Matsu, Seiichi Tanabe, Kazuhiko Kato, Kahori Fujii, Rumi, Kanji Tsuda
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenwriters: Shunji Iwai