The youth movie perhaps hit its peak in the immediate post-war period, but poignant coming of age tales have always held a special place in Japanese cinema. We Are (青の帰り道, Ao no Kaerimichi) has a fairly troubled history of its own – the shoot was disrupted when one of its stars was arrested leading to the role being recast, requiring substantial reshoots which took place over a year later. Yet like its protagonists, We Are was finally able to rediscover itself and create something beautiful from admittedly difficult circumstances. Broken hearts, broken dreams, and broken futures conspire to scatter a once close group of high school friends as they each pursue individual dreams with individual success whilst looking alternately for a path both forward and back.
Spanning from 2008 to 2018, We Are follows seven ordinary small town teens from their high school graduation through to a more settled adulthood ten years later. In 2008, Kana (Erina Mano) and Tatsuo (Yuki Morinaga) have musical dreams which she is going to Tokyo to pursue while he is staying behind to study for medical school entrance exams in an attempt to fulfil his doctor father’s wishes. Kana’s best friend, Kiri (Kurumi Shimizu), is going with her, partly out of a want of anything else to do. She has dreams of becoming a photographer but her family are not supportive of her art and she has always struggled through feeling at odds with them. Loud mouth delinquent Ryo (Ryusei Yokohama) doesn’t really have a plan, save bumming around until something turns up and any plans Ko (Junki Tozuka) might have had would have been derailed seeing as he’s got his girlfriend (Mika Akizuki) pregnant and has decided on a shotgun wedding. Only Yuki (Keisuke Tomita) is following a more conventional path in going to Tokyo for university and then planning on finding a regular salaryman job.
The film opens with a scene of joy and freedom as the kids ride their bikes along an otherwise empty stretch of road between the fields, swearing to make the most of the last summer vacation. The road itself becomes a recurrent motif, stretching out into the distance seemingly full of promise but also strangely empty. The kids do indeed make some memories, but for some of them the hope proves too much to bear, soon turning to despair as their lives begin to spiral out of control, their dreams warped and ruined by the muddiness of the adult world.
Kana’s musical career is quickly derailed by an amoral producer who doesn’t believe in the artistic merit of music, only in its commercial capability. Kiri, dropping out of college, gives up on her dreams of photography to make Kana’s a success through acting as her manager but the two naive country girls are no match for the canny executive and Kiri is soon working for the company learning how to market soulless pap to a public desperate only for empty cuteness. While Kana struggles with accidentally becoming the poster girl for a brand of vegetable juice, Kiri embarks on her first love affair but is ill equipped to recognise the potential warning signs in her new boyfriend owing to a lack of emotional awareness brought about by her dysfunctional upbringing.
While Kana and Kiri struggle in the city, Ko has married, settled down and begun building a home for himself back in the country. An ordinary dream, but an achievable one if you’re willing to make it work and Ko takes to fatherhood with natural ease. Sadly, his friends are not so lucky. As their dreams fade, alcoholism, domestic abuse, crime, and finally suicide conspire to ruin their hopes, leaving each with a profound sense of guilt and defeat in finally finding themselves on the road home with not much to show for their travels besides a few fresh scars. Yet somehow, despite the myriad unforgivable things and a shared sadness in a collective failure to save each other, friendship endures, forgiveness is possible and though the days of youth will never return, there is a “way back” for those who’ve learned that there’s nothing wrong in wanting to start over. You can never go “home” again, but some things don’t change even when you do and if you’re very lucky the most important of them will still be there waiting for you no matter how long you’ve stayed away.
Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.