Japanese Film Festival Day One: Always – Sunset on Third Street

The tenth annual Japanese Film Festival is the fourth that I’ve attended, and it’s certainly grown since I first attended, one month out of high school. Featuring 19 films instead of the customary 8-10, this is the first time I’ve not been able to see all of them.

The opening night, at the Festival’s new Greater Union George Street location and open to the general public for the first time, was introduced by Japan’s Consulate General to Sydney. He spoke of the appeal of Japan’s films lying in that they are made specifically for Japanese people, as opposed to the determined worldwide demographics of Hollywood.
This is not solely the domain of Japan, of course; films where the characters truly belong to their surroundings have long been favourites of mine. That’s why a lot of independent films work: Little Miss Sunshine, despite featuring an Australian actress as one of its leads, had a quintessentially American feel. I’m a fan of the milieu film, and Japan has no shortage of those.

Always happens to exist in one of my favourite subgenres of Japanese film: nostalgic pieces about post-war Japan, presented in a fashion so romantic that it may never have even existed. This is a subject that I have managed to touch on with semi-frequency on Anime Pilgrimage.
Like many Japanese films, it’s extreme in its sentimentality. I don’t quite understand why “sentimental” became a negative adjective, because when the sentimentality isn’t false it can tug at your heart without making you feel manipulated (that manipulation of emotion was precisely why I couldn’t stand Finding Nemo).
It’s a film of broad characters, but of the variety that have become known and beloved all throughout Japan. Like so many of the films that they show at these festivals, I had the beginnings of tears in my eyes at the end. We call that a victory.

Always is best described as a chronicle of the events in the lives of the citizens of a small Tokyo district in the final year of Tokyo Tower’s construction. The key characters are the Suzuki family (led by “Suzuki Auto”) and frustrated author Chagawa Ryunosuke (“Mr. Literature”). The periphery characters revolve around them to detail a year of great change in their attitudes.

The situations that these characters are placed in are fairly generic, with country girl “Roku-chan” (actual name Mutsuko) finding herself working in an anti-climactic job at Suzuki Auto and Chagawa finding himself lumbered with a ten year old boy, Junnosuke, who acts to make him somewhat less misanthropic.

These characters are written in broad strokes but this is the sort of film that makes that a selling point. These are the sorts of people that the audience is supposed to know, and that foreign audiences who have knowledge of other Japanese films will have little trouble recognising.
Chagawa is the funny misanthropic slob; Suzuki Auto is the good humoured but bad tempered patriarch of legend; Roku-chan the traditional country bumpkin with a good heart. Chagawa’s love interest, Hiromi … played with power by Koyuki … is the film’s highlight, one of the few people who exists with a somewhat sinister darkness and, more importantly, the remorse needed to overcome the darkness.
The strangest part of the film is the few minutes devoted to the local doctor, who sometimes drinks too much and deludes himself into believing that his wife and daughter are still alive. This part of the film is understandably depressing and there is no solution to it. The director therefore makes no effort to solve it … and this sort of strength means that the sentimentality has never been overplayed or misplaced.

The introduction to this film made it clear that director Takashi Yamazaki is a veteran Visual Effects Director, and one of the people behind the Resident Evil game franchise. Only twice do we get flights of fancy, in the forms of the Shounen Bouken and Suzuki Auto’s rampage. Otherwise the film is quite subdued and seems exactly like countless others set in the era.

My friend Raymond, whose taste in film is distinctly undefined, said, upon leaving the screening, that the film was too “sappy”. I clearly have a high threshold for these sorts of antics, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s the sort of film that I was willing to have a happy ending as all of the dramas were happening, and it almost got there. I would describe the ending offered by Always, if you consider that it has two distinct storylines, as “one and a half” happy endings. There is a situation presented that cannot be resolved within the timeframe offered by the movie, and I would have felt cheated if a blatant and inexplicable quick fix had been offered.

I think that the moral of Always is that curry rice is a metaphor for Japan. Either that or that the end of the fifties was a time of optimism for the people of Japan, existing in tight-knit communities. Only twice does it present a negative impression of that life, suggesting that not everything is as simple and clean as one might like it. The point is, the people on Third Street believe that, yes, there will always be a sunset and, with it, new times will be ushered in.

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