A lonely teenage girl begins to reevaluate her ideas of freedom and family after bonding with a sophisticated older woman from her neighbourhood in Ohno Candice Mana’s cheerfully quirky coming-of-age tale Lovely Little Ai (愛ちゃん物語♡, Ai-chan Monogatari). Aptly named for this is indeed a story of love, Ohno’s gentle drama cycles through the destructive effects of toxic, unsupportive parenting while finally finding solace in the strength of human connections to create new and enduring bonds not tied by blood.
16-year-old Ai (Akane Sakanoue) explains that she lives alone with her father, her mother having passed away shortly after she was born, though alone is perhaps the most accurate word seeing as workaholic salaryman Tetsuo (Kan Hotoda) is rarely at home. Nevertheless, his authoritarian parenting style borders on the abusive as he bans Ai from hanging out with friends, makes her ask permission before anything she does, and insists she send him a photo of the clock to prove she’s home by the 6pm curfew (why she doesn’t just send the same picture every day is anyone’s guess). Ai seems not to think too much of it, but is also beginning to yearn for more freedom while additionally anxious that she has no friends and no idea how to make them because of her father’s controlling personality.
Everything changes when she accidentally bumps into another woman on the street, knocking her over and spilling her bespoke cosmetics all over the road. Sensing a connection and hoping to get some feminine advice, Ai asks the woman to stay for a while and eventually ends up becoming friends with her, often eating in her apartment and taking various shopping trips together. In a sense, Ai comes to think of Seiko (Hisao Kurozumi) as a maternal figure but their relationship is later strained when she incorrectly comes to believe that she really is her mother despite having known all along that Seiko is trans and therefore could not have given birth to her.
Well, Ai mostly refers to Seiko as someone who wears women’s clothing but evidently has no problem accepting her, offended on her behalf when a boy from school, Ryo (Ryo Matsumura), who has a crush on her rudely runs away screaming on seeing them together in town though he later makes a point of apologising explaining that he was merely shocked and had an unusual reaction born of nervousness. Nevertheless, a melancholy flashback reveals Seiko’s difficult childhood with an authoritarian father not unlike Ai’s who disturbingly decapitated her Barbie and broke her colouring in pencils in two in an attempt to discourage her femininity. Watching over Ai she encourages her to embrace her freedom, explaining that life is dull if you can’t do the things you want to do and allowing her the space and confidence to make friends with the popular girls at school while figuring out who she is in defiance of her father’s control.
Even so on finding evidence that suggests Seiko has been keeping something from her she begins to doubt her new maternal relationship, unfairly feeling betrayed while refusing to give Seiko the opportunity to explain. What she eventually learns is that she’s come to see Seiko as a mother even if they are not related by blood and that the connection she has with her is what is most important. Her decision validates her right to choose and redefine the meaning of family including the boundaries around her own, but also affirms Seiko’s right to play a maternal role despite the rather unkind words Tetsuo had used to describe her before himself getting a wake up call in what it means to be a responsible father.
Cute and quirky with its pastel colour scheme, whimsical production design, and frequent flights into fancy, Lovely Little Ai is a heartfelt tale of family as active choice in which a young woman comes of age while repairing her fracturing relationships by embracing the love of a new maternal figure and pushing her wounded father into accepting his emotional responsibilities and relinquishing his need for control. A lovely little tale indeed, Ai’s sweet summer story is a breath of fresh air and a welcome advocation for the new family founded on love and mutual respect rather than blood or obligation.
Lovely Little Ai streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.
Teaser trailer (no subtitles)