The friendship between two underachieving teenage boys hints a series of conflicts in a changing society while accidentally bringing their respective siblings together in Keisuke Kinoshita’s cheerful romantic comedy, This Year’s Love (今年の恋, Kotoshi no Koi). In many ways, it’s the older siblings who appear to be stuck while the parents are largely content to let life be and the boys rejecting the conventional paths laid out for them while attempting to overcome their loneliness and sense of despair through the sincerity of their interclass friendship.
As the film opens, high school boys Hikaru (Masakazu Tamura) and Ichiro (Ryuji Ishikawa) have been lured to a patch of grass above the city where they’re assaulted by an older bully who for some reason resents the fact that they weren’t wearing their traditional students caps even though such things are perhaps already outdated in the rapidly changing society of 1962. In any case, Hikaru vows revenge, deciding to give up golf club and a series of other things to take up boxing, instructing Ichiro to abandon the “girly” sport of basketball and join him. Neither boy is currently doing very well at their studies, with Ichiro’s prim and proper sister Mikako (Mariko Okada) convinced that Hikaru is a bad influence on her brother assuming that he is another spoilt rich kid set on leading him astray.
In fact, she’s not entirely wrong. Hikaru does seem to be somewhat aimless probably because his family is wealthy and he doesn’t see much urgency in the situation nor hold that kind of anxiety for his future though is fond of telling people that he feels quite depressed. While Ichiro lives in Ginza where his family run a successful restaurant, Hikaru lives in a large townhouse in nearby Yokohama cared for largely by their kindhearted housekeeper (Chieko Higashiyama) and a live-in maid while his older brother Tadashi (Teruo Yoshida) is currently a graduate student heading towards a regular salaryman job. Their mother having died some time ago and their father always away on business, care for Hikaru has largely fallen to Tadashi who is nevertheless a young man himself with his own life to be getting on with. Similarly Mikako has largely taken on a maternal role when it comes to caring for Ichiro because her parents are always busy with the restaurant. Part of the reason she’s resentful of Hikaru is that she’s the one the school keeps calling in about her brother’s poor academic performance while Ichiro is always off messing around with his rich kid friend.
Mikako seems to take against Hikaru in part because he is rich, assuming that wealthy people are necessarily decadent and lazy while concerned that Ichiro’s head is being turned by seeing the way the other half live without understanding what it takes to live that way. The Aikawas aren’t exactly poor, they also have a live-in maid and their quarters behind the restaurant are spacious enough, though they couldn’t quite claim to be middle class because they work in the hospitality sector which is still somewhat looked down upon. In any case, dressing exclusively in kimono Mikako is extremely uptight and obsessed with properness. She further takes against the Yamadas after an awkward first meeting with Tadashi who is dumped by his fed up girlfriend in her restaurant and ends up getting beer thrown in his face, while his father later turns up with his secret longterm mistress, a maid from an inn in Atami, leaving Mikako scandalised and embarrassed.
Ironically enough, Tadashi’s name quite literally means “correct” though even if he isn’t quite as hardline as Mikako he also wants the best for his brother. Because of the realities of life in post-war Japan, both boys explain that they find it hard to study in part because they are lonely often left home alone with no one to talk to which is one reason they value their friendship so deeply. Hikaru’s mother has passed away and his father is largely absent, while Ichiro’s parents are always working in the restaurant as is Mikako even if she’s largely been delegated other maternal duties. Tadashi and the housekeeper attempt to set Hikaru straight that he needs to do well in school because he’ll have to be able to get a good job to support himself, but Hikaru is part of a new generation that doesn’t the see point in the emptiness of the salaryman lifestyle. Tadashi might not either, but he’s going along with it anyway whereas as Mikako is completely wedded to the idea of aspirational respectability intent that Ichiro should do his best to get into college and catapult himself into the middle classes.
Her cheerfully laidback parents meanwhile barely finished school and have done alright for themselves with restaurant. They aren’t that bothered if Ichiro isn’t academically inclined because they can train him up as a chef even if that isn’t quite the future Mikako had envisaged for him in her upwardly mobile worldview. Nevertheless, she’s not quite as prim as she makes out, sneaking the odd cigarette here and there, and despite herself begins to fall for Tadashi’s goofy charms while bonding in shared love for their siblings. In the end she’s the one who has to learn that it’s alright to have a little fun now and then and if longtime widower Mr Yamada has a girlfriend that’s probably alright too. The boys’ teacher hints that he finds it strange they aren’t more into girls, Hikaru apparently so popular that the phone at his house never stops ringing but he turns them all down because he’s too consumed with ennui to date, introducing an additional transgressive element to their friendship along with their bid for manliness with their new obsession with boxing which as Mikako’s maid points out does feature a series of shirtless musclebound men. Perhaps Mikako’s newfound appreciation for romantic freedom wouldn’t stretch that far, but it does seem to have opened her up to new possibilities in a less judgemental future as she rings in the new year in the old capital of Kyoto.